For many people, the New Year represents a new beginning — a fresh start with a clean slate. What better time to make a change for the better? In past years I, like many others, spent time reflecting on the year gone by and resolving to improve the year ahead. And like most others, the majority of my resolutions fizzled out around the end of April.
To be honest, when I look back at this past year, the pattern isn’t that different. I set a bunch of resolutions and lost steam a couple months in. If I were to judge the past year based solely on the number of resolutions I’d kept, 2017 would be a complete failure, I didn’t even keep a single one of my resolutions.
If this was me last year, I’d usher in the New Year with the mild but unpleasant feeling of “I’m a failure” tinged with hints of “who was I kidding anyways.” Then I’d gradually get over it, write up a list of things I could do better, and plan out how I was going to do them. You know, “make resolutions.”
I’m not making any resolutions this year.
This year, I’m cutting through all of the noise and going straight to the heart: How do we actually get better?
Making year after year of failed resolutions has taught me two things:
1) Goals are great, but worthless without a sound plan and consistent action.
Before you can get better, you have to define “better.”
Imagine you have discovered a rich vein of gold buried deep underground. The gold represents your goals, but the discovery of the vein itself represents the moment when you decide what your gold is. Trying to get better without first “discovering the vein of gold” is like digging aimlessly in the dirt. You’re doing a lot of work, but to what end? You have to know what you’re working for before you can work towards it.
On the other hand, just knowing about the gold is no good either. Wanting it and having it are two different things. Nothing is going to happen until you get in the dirt and dig it out. In the same vein of thought, while it’s fine to work yourself to the bone mining it with a pickaxe, could it be smarter to take another approach?
(i.e hire some contractors, or procure an excavator)
Setting a goal, much like discovering gold, can be an exciting thing. We have identified what it is that we want and have set ourselves on course to claim it. This brings focus to our thoughts and energy (not New Age-y energy, just regular energy like the kind you use to move around). It feels good to be on a path, but we have to be careful not to confuse this with actual accomplishment.
Likewise, the actual “work” can be quite rewarding in and of itself, regardless of whether it is moving you closer your goal or not.
For example, many of us love the “live rolling” part of training. It’s fun and a great workout. Furthermore, no training program in jiu jitsu is truly complete without a component of live sparring. With that said, the athlete that ONLY does live training will stunt their progression in jiu jitsu.
Just as we should be wary of confusing goal setting with goal reaching, we should also be careful to ensure that the work is the right kind of work — the kind that actually contributes towards our desired end result. Otherwise, we’ll be left spinning our wheels.
The only way to take a goal and turn it into a reality is to do the right kind of work. The problem with this is that it requires you to know what the “right kind of work” is, which leads us to lesson two:
2) You Already Know What You Need To Do
The “right kind of work” is whatever you need to do. Knowing “what you have to do” is a bit different from knowing “where the gold is.” It’s more specific, pertaining more to the immediate steps one can take towards a goal rather than the end result.
If you know “where the gold is,” you most likely know what the “right kind of work” is, but something, usually fear, is preventing you from:
A) actually going out and doing it, or
B) admitting that the “thing” is actually what you need to do.
Okay, I’m starting to sound crazy. Let’s tie this back to the beginning of the post. I was talking about how I would go through the cycle of making a resolution, getting inspired, and losing steam part-way through the year, remember?
Well, because of all those failures, I realized that at their core, my resolutions hadn’t changed much over the years: I was still trying not to be late, write more, read more books, be nicer to my family, improve at jiu jitsu, and get a six pack (hey.. a guy can dream).
Of course, there were a bunch of other resolutions that changed from year to year, but those were short term goals specific to my situation then. Looking back, I don’t care about those goals anymore. They’re no longer relevant. But for some reason, I kept coming up with those six resolutions year after year.
But what’s the point?
The point is that the major things that I needed to address were right under my nose. They weren’t the exciting things that I thought would create big new changes in my life — they were the little, everyday things that required me to change the way I had been living. The “things we need to do” are not big, flashy challenges. They are usually small, recurring tasks that we habitually neglect.
But if they’re so small, then why do we, why did I repeatedly fail to change the way I did them? As I thought about this I realized that something stood out to me in each of the categories — fear.
I said before that most of us know what the “right kind of work” is, but that we’re either afraid to go out and do it, or afraid to admit that it is what we need to do.
Well that’s because “what we need to do” is invariably part of something important to us. If it were not, why would we decide that we needed to do it in the first place? Because it is important to us, it carries with it a level of psychological pressure. Because there is pressure, we feel a level of aversion towards “doing what we need to do.”
Steven Pressfield calls this “resistance.” If you’ve ever felt the oppressive, lethargic feeling that drives you to procrastinate, you’ve encountered it. The good thing about “resistance,” or fear is that it ALWAYS points in the exact opposite direction of the “right kind of work.” As such, we can wield it as a sort of reverse compass and use it to guide us.
Each of the six categories of recurring resolutions had something I was afraid of that was keeping me from doing them.
What could be so scary about “reading more books?” It turns out that I wasn’t afraid to read, but that I dreaded the thought of sitting still and the feeling that I was “wasting time reading.”
“Improving at Jiu Jitsu” seems innocuous at first, but then I realized that I was beginning to get scared of coming up short in competitions and becoming comfortable just going through my routine in the gym.
“Being nicer to my family” was limited by my dread of actually sitting there and making a connection with them. The process seems so alien and awkward.
And so on and so forth.
So now what I have to do is EXACTLY the things that make me feel so uncomfortable. Doing this kind of work is a pain in the ass, and its often kind of boring, but it’s what actually drives progress in our lives, not the half-hearted optimism of New Years Resolutions. .
This year, I want to focus my energy (the regular kind) on doing the things I know I need to do — the basic, mundane, everyday things. They aren’t the sexy, high-reaching resolutions that I used to make, but they impact the course of every single day.
Wishing a Happy New Year to my TG Fam!