They say that doing the doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is the first sign of madness. Yet making, and failing, at New Year’s resolutions has been going for some 4,000 years since the ancient Babylonians. In the Babylonians case, they were bargaining with their Gods that they would pay off their debts and return all borrowed items in return for a favourable year ahead. Early Christianity and some Evangelical denominations now still practice setting resolutions for the year ahead based on the previous year’s sins.
These days, we tend to make promises to ourselves rather than the Gods, promises that involve improvements to both our business and our personal lives. The practice has become part of our self-improvement culture. The biggest puzzle is that while most of us do it, we are all equally aware that the statistics of success are truly appalling. 8% is often quoted as the figure of those who stick to their new found resolves. So why does it have such low success rate?
The first reason is that many of our resolutions are not authentically ours. From childhood, we absorb other people’s ideas and philosophies of how we should be and how we should behave. We then spend most of our lives striving (and inevitably failing) to match this imaginary person. If you cast your mind back to childhood, what did you dream of doing? Be it a dancer, a doctor, a traveller, only a few of us end up following that dream.
In Western cultures, we are often obsessed with financial and material success, so we are usually striving to grow our businesses or careers because that is the “done” thing. But material and financial success by themselves do not bring happiness. We don’t stop and check to ask ourselves the big question as to why we think we want this. If we did, we would more often find these are not our resolutions.
From what we have absorbed, we put down New Year’s resolutions that stem from other people – that we must get a bigger business, career promotion, cut down the hours of the job we love. Because they are other people’s ideas, your own emotions won’t be engaged. This is could be why you have failed when someone has told you to lose weight or give up smoking because it is a good idea. If on the other hand you have had a life threatening scare, your emotions will be awake and raring into self-preservation mode, really wanting to make that change.
Even in business, we sometimes forget to apply SMART goal systems and we hardly ever use them in New Year’s resolutions. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results focussed and Time related. In setting ourselves a goal of growing our business by getting ten new clients, we too often forget to specify details of those clients – like their size or profitability. We pull figures from the sky full of wishful thinking, somehow believing that ten new clients will simply drop into our laps because we wish it so, rather than work out if that is realistic or how we are going to connect with these people. We forget to give this wish a time scale – ten new clients by 2nd January or 30th June. In the same way, we will vow to improve our work life balance without mapping out the “how”, or the “when” of achieving this. Lack of clarity in goal setting is one of the biggest de-motivators.
Dis-satisfaction with our selves or with our lives tends to be the root of most resolutions. We think that by going on as normal in 90% of ways but selecting a random group of fairly superficial changes, happiness will magically appear. We then are amazed that having added some more failures to our list of disappointments, our happiness levels have not increased.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, and pioneer of the science of happiness, identified what he described as an optimal experience. He saw it first in artists and creatives, who became so absorbed in their work they lost any awareness of their surroundings. He called it being in FLOW.
If you think back, you will be able to identify FLOW moments you have had. It may have been reading a book, learning a new skill or doing the very best bits of your job, but whatever it was, you will have been so fully absorbed not only will you have been oblivious to all that was going on around you, you would also have remained in full control of the activity without being remotely scared of failure. Yoga and mindfulness at their higher levels have similarities to being in FLOW. Being in FLOW makes us both exceptionally happy and means we can massively heighten our achievement levels.
McKinsey carried out a ten year study of top executives and found that they could achieve literally five times as much in FLOW. Translated, this means you could achieve the same amount on a Monday in FLOW as you could in an entire week out of it. The science behind this is that when in FLOW the brain produces 5 neurochemicals which between them tighten focus, block pain or other distractions, prompt lateral connection, increase our ability to acquire new skills and knowledge and generally make us feel good.
Certain components are essential to attaining FLOW. One is clarity of goals, another clear ways of measuring progress. The next is the goal having a balance between existing skill and challenge. If you set your goals too high, you will fail too much. Self-belief is also essential. All of this sounds very similar to SMART goals. When we are in FLOW, we have the sub-conscious ability to shut out all outside interference, so we give the goal absolutely every bit of our attention and our best abilities. Both being in that state and what we achieve makes us happy, and because we perform so well and we are totally in love with what we are doing, we have no need to overwork or overstress.
Undoubtedly, we need goals and resolutions because without them there would be no measure of success. We need them in both professional and personal lives. Success and happiness in both areas are inevitably inter-dependant. If we are unhappy in one, there will be some knock on effect in the other, if only in the shape our physical or mental health.
But for 2018, instead of randomly selecting some superficial New Year’s resolution, try instead two new things. Think back to when you were young and re-connect with your childhood dreams, the real authentic you. And also look back and identify those times in your life you have been in FLOW and what you have been doing at the time. Put the two together and you start finding the life you really truly want, not the one you think you ought to want.
And if the thought of not bothering with New Year’s resolutions is too scary, you can always do New Year all over again in March which is when New Year used to be alongside the planting of new crops. But the best possible way to start any year is to identify and replicate FLOW states in all aspects of your life. Be authentically you, and be happy.