Resolutions and the Problem of Will Power
With the start of any cycle, it’s not uncommon for people to think of their goals for that cycle. The start of summer, for instance, has gardeners thinking of what to do for their favorite flowers, fruits or vegetables; winter brings visions of planned snowmobile rides or skiing vacations. Of course, the largest beginning is for the whole year, and, unless you follow one of the lesser known calendars, for most of the world, that is January 1st and the time for a special category of goals: the famous New Year’s Resolutions.
The word “resolution” has to do with decision making and deciding usually to either take an action or not to take an action. It invokes the beginning of our struggle for “self control” and one of the great difficulties of human nature. For many people, it brings forth the need for “will power” and for increased control over ourselves.
Therein lays the problem with New Year’s Resolutions: the problem of self-control. We don’t often consider the source of our conflict and why we don’t naturally make the choices that we should be doing. After all, doesn’t everyone really want to be in good health, eat better, quit smoking, read more, learn a foreign language or improve themselves in some other way?
In ancient times, the mind was conceived of as at least two parts: the animal nature and the higher thinking mind. The animal nature was to be controlled and brought under mastery, often compared to the horses drawing a chariot, the thinking mind being the charioteer. The problem here, of course is that few writers from ancient times gave instruction as to what to do to control that animal nature, they simply told us to do so! Many people today are in the same predicament, looking for self control, but not knowing how to find it.
In my recent researches, readings and work with patients, I’ve started to see the value in viewing the mind as a small society of parts of us, sub personalities that have their own agendas, needs and wants. The common phrase “one part of me wants to do one thing, another part of me wants to do another” is the expression of this idea. In fact, we have many parts, some that get along with others and some in a polarized conflict with other parts. When we declare a resolution, we start to form an internal conflict between one part and another; otherwise, we would simply do whatever it was we wanted to do!! We hardly ever have a conflict of whether to take another step as we walk down the street (one part of us is in charge of that function and simply carries it out) and we don’t need to think in order to get a part of us to drive or read once we learn how. These parts work together and if all goes well, we don’t notice them, but resolutions point to inner conflicts. So how can we handle this internal conflict? One simple way is to put these goals into forms that avoid that conflict. I want to offer two different ideas of how to do that: by learning about a goal and by connecting the goals to other person’s needs.
Learning Instead of Resolving
Let’s say we want to eat better. We can come up with a draconian diet plan that most people would say you would lose weight on, but almost no one would be thrilled with following. Its almost certain that an internal part would come up and resist this diet, with other parts of us having to deal with the constant feelings and temptations that go with such efforts. One strategy the resistant part uses is to take advantage of the first time we break the resolution and go off the diet (or smoke a cigarette or skip exercising). That resistant part will have you thinking that you’ve relapsed and convince you that you’ve done it permanently and that there is no use to continue the plan. This is the frequent reason for failing our resolutions; we don’t give ourselves permission to have that “one cigarette” or “one cream puff” relapse. Instead we immediately jump to the category of “failure” and wait until next year to try again.
One way to deal with this is to notice when we are being tricked into giving up after that first relapse. I think another way to deal with it, even more elegantly, is to word the resolution differently. If we think of it as an ongoing project we will be more resistant to excuses of relapse. How does one do that? Simply decide that this is a LEARNING goal. The goal could be not just diet, but one step up in logic: “I’m learning to care for my health better”. If that’s the resolution, then failure is simply feedback. We can look at each failure or relapse and ask ourselves what went wrong and how can we do this better. It can generate a process that we are familiar with: that of learning. We have learned many things in our lives, its simply putting that same strategy into focus with our goal. If one way of making better choices around health doesn’t work, we can explore others and use our creativity.
The creative part of our mind can even find ways to enjoy some of our favorite things without guilt if we are open to that process. I’m reminded of the guy who eats an entire pizza at one time! How does he do it? He does it by running a long distance race and ordering a pizza to be delivered at a certain crossroads at a certain time, rolling it up and eating it as he runs! Now, that’s a drastic measure to be sure, but its one creative way to eat anything you like: burn the calories at the same time! These little games that we play with ourselves can start to teach us how to motivate ourselves. Whether its dieting every other day, or giving up one day to eat anything we like in the week, or perhaps exercising with friends, the learning process gives us a way to engage with the goal and not give up on it.
Finding Motivation for Others and not yourself.
Another thing that may help with our goals is to realize that often our goals aren’t for ourselves alone. The above mentioned health goal is probably tied in to your relationships with others. As you care for your self, you are being less of a burden, living longer for your intimate relationships and being more available to help others in the world. If you see the benefits in your mind’s eye, not just for yourself but for your friends and loved ones, it changes the dynamic of the goal considerably. The recent book “Advanced Manifesting- Tibetan Buddhist Secrets for Fulfilling Your Dreams” by Tara Springett goes deeply into this approach. I believe she’s onto something in that many of those parts that may argue with the goal will be less likely to put up resistance when we remind ourselves of how much we will give to others as a natural result of our goal.
Finally, if we combine the two strategies together, we have a better chance of getting our intention (another good word to replace resolution!). We consider how we will learn about reaching the goal, what resources we have (including information and encouragement from friends and neighbors or even online groups) and just how much we are doing this for the sake of other’s well being also. This combination can change how we view our project, shifting it from one of overcoming internal conflict to being an enjoyable puzzle about life and a task that will benefit others as well as yourself.
Give this a try instead of “will power” and see what kinds of changes are possible!
Find out more about me and my own work (and how to have a free consultation) at http://alansalmi.com