A Very Gentle New Year

We spent New Year with a group of friends, relaxing on the verandah. There were no fireworks and no resolutions. Just good company and tasty food.

The following Thursday I headed off to my regular yoga class to find the room crammed full of people I’ve never seen before. This happens every year. Lots of people give themselves a good talking to over their diet, fitness, drinking, smoking or other bad habits and then push themselves to change.

By February our class will be back to normal. There’s usually one or two new regulars, but most of the January attendees will have abandoned yoga and retreated to their regular patterns.

I’ve been thinking about why.

Why does this pattern happen every year? People with the very best of intentions make a serious commitment to change and then find themselves breaking their own promises, often within days of making them. I suspect a big part of the problem is the all-or-nothing approach. We try to do too much too quickly.

Perhaps instead of committing to giving something up we should just try reducing it over time. Maybe we could create a series of smaller goals and gradually head towards total abstinence.

There’s good science behind this. It’s the reason computer games are so appealing; they set small, achievable challenges that progressively get slightly harder. We not only find this type of model much easier to stick with, we actually enjoy it.

Computer games have something else going for them. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s not just okay, it’s essential. Mistakes are part of the learning process. You don’t see them as failures, but as a source of information that ultimately helps you to win the game.

So let’s apply this idea to a really common New Year’s resolution:

Improving physical fitness

Level one: increase the amount of incidental activity in your life. Park a bit further away from your destination. Use the stairs where you can. Make two or three trips to the clothesline instead of one. Continue until this becomes a regular part of your day (and skip to the next level if you already do this). Congratulate yourself on your achievements.

Level two: add in five minutes a day of exercise. It can be anything you like. Go for a five minute walk. Do five minutes of stretches. Lift some hand weights for five minutes. Do this at the same time every day until it’s part of your routine (and skip to the next level if you already do this). Congratulate yourself on your achievements and remember, it’s not failure if you miss a day. Learn from it. Figure out what happened and recommit. Maybe you need to change the type of exercise or the time of day.

Level three: find a gym class, dance class, rowing club, soccer team or any other kind of activity you enjoy that will help build fitness and sign up. Bonus points if you sign up with a friend (this helps keep you motivated) or make friends after you join. Go every week until it’s part of your routine. Level up by increasing your five minutes a day to ten minutes.

Level four: This can be your top level and your ultimate goal or you can add in as many intermediary levels as you like. It’s up to you. Perhaps your goal is three regular gym sessions a week, or cycling a particular distance, or competing in a marathon. Maybe it’s just integrating a daily yoga practice and a regular class into your life. It doesn’t matter how ambitious the goal is, but that you give yourself challenging yet achievable steps to get there. It’s also important to build in failure. It’s how we learn, not a reason to give up.

I love this approach to change. I love the human-ness of it, and the way it plays to our strengths as well as our weaknesses. I enjoy making a game out of anything I want to change because playfulness keeps it light hearted and makes it a source of fun rather than a chore. I enjoy thinking of myself as an avatar in a computer game, trying to get to the next level.

Most of all I enjoy the gentleness of this approach. No self-bullying. No ultimatums. Just incremental progress towards an achievable goal. We can conquer bad habits by simply doing less rather than obliterating them, and then continuing to do less over time. We can build new, healthy habits by just adding in a little more, and then continuing to add more when we’re ready. Simple. Effective.

So here’s to a very gentle new year. May your goals be realistic and achievable and may your transformation towards a better you be playful and joyful.

Happy 2017!