Keeping New Year’s Resolutions by Allowing Time for Change

As we approach 2012, the tradition of New Year’s resolutions has sprung up on the horizon. The prospect of eating healthier, being kinder to ourselves, being a better this, a better that, a fully superior being: it’s all lying in wait for us.

So why is it so hard to keep and follow resolutions? Isn’t it enough to vow to be more of whatever we need to be more of, to intend with all our might? Apparently not, as many of us have learned. Change takes many ingredients that occur outside our ideas about change, including forms of external support in our relationships and environment.

One important yet overlooked aspect of all this is time; more precisely, letting the change we’re seeking take the time it needs to unfold.  And it often needs more time than we think.

Why does change take so long? Part of the reason is that as we set resolutions, we can’t help but bring the conditioning of speed and efficiency that we’ve learned elsewhere in our culture, particularly at work. Who among us hasn’t had the experience of finishing an important project, only to discover there’s no moment to rest and reflect because it’s time to race breathlessly on to the next project?

We are not conditioned to let things take time to unfold, because typically we are punished for not being fast. We are told more is required, sooner. In fact, the entire financial structure of a second-by-second stock market and quarterly earnings has conditioned companies, executives, managers, and employees to be focused on short-term gains.

All of which is to say, change takes “a long time” because our yardstick for “a long time” is pretty short. For some perspective on timing, I like to reflect on the fact that it took one man four years to paint a single room. (How many of us have held two or three jobs alone in that period?!) That man is Michelangelo Buonarroti, and that room is the Sistine Chapel, widely viewed as one of the world’s greatest masterpieces.

Another reason that things take longer than we think they will is that our thoughts move faster than reality. The human brain is an incredible thought machine. We produce billions of those guys, easily. It takes a micro-second for a new thought to arise, remind us of something, and then for another thought to form, and so on. Harvard scientist Daniel Gilbert says our species’ brain is distinguished from that of other species largely by its superiority at “nexting”: the incredible ability to imagine what happens next. The brain’s predictive capacity is immense.

This means that our prefrontal cortex, that clever thought-producer extraordinaire, can conceive of change much faster than change can ever take place. On the one hand, this is excellent. We can imagine better futures and work towards them. On the other hand, it’s a tricky scenario. Combined with our cultural conditioning, it leads us to expect change to happen very quickly.

And here’s the rub: we often don’t realize we’re bringing an expectation of speed that’s not in line with the rate that change processes may naturally take. That’s one reason it’s so hard to keep a resolution. Unaccustomed to having things take time to unfold, we’re surprised when change isn’t quickly forthcoming. If it’s not happening fast enough, it must not be happening, we conclude. We don’t allow for fits and starts. If we fail to nail results we want in the allotted time frame, we may feel defeated, decide we can’t do it or it’s not worth doing, and throw in the towel.

Fortunately, we have the capacity to catch on to ourselves. For example, if I hadn’t failed to:

  • Improve at yoga
  • Manage office conflict better
  • Not have hang-ups about holiday sweets

at hyper-warp speed, I wouldn’t have caught on to my own expectations. (And for the record: after a year, my yoga practice is deepening; my conflict skills are improving, and my attitude towards sweets is somewhat more skillful.)

As you begin to think about a New Year’s resolution, you might reflect on the following:

  • What are your expectations for how long this will take?
  • Where do those expectations come from?
  • What is your grounding for the assessment of how long it may take to feel or observe progress?
  • What kind of attitude would you like to have with respect to setbacks, slower-than-expected progress, or challenges?

I invite you to incorporate the intention to cultivate that attitude into your resolution. With such an intention, we can allow our resolutions to take the time they need, and we can allow ourselves to navigate the change process with perspective and gentleness.

Happy New Year!

New Ventures West