Resolutions are a funny thing. Normally brought on by the beginning of something “new”…like a new year, a new month, a new week, a new day…or a new job, home, relationship, family member, school year, season…you can make a resolution for just about anything.
Whatever “newness” it may be, it brings some kind of change—and with it a potential effect on our own desire to make changes in what we are doing, or should be doing, to embrace that change around us and make it our own somehow. Hopefully for the better. At least that’s what it seems.
But if you think about the word resolution, it contains “the act or process of resolving” about something—and when you further deconstruct the definition down to its parts, it involves analyzing and refining, reducing and deducing, declaring and determining, answering and solving—basically making a decision “with firmness of resolve.” Now, this firmly-resolved decision may or may not be expressed out loud, scribbled in a journal, posted on Facebook, taped to the bathroom mirror, stuck on the fridge, or even reflected in our Amazon.com orders. But the idea of “resolution” we have come to know and love-hate this time of year is a real downer, if you think about its connotations and synonyms, like deliverance, diagnosis, and verdict. Oh, and then there’s the related words like decree, mandate, say-so, and my favorite: doom! Which implies (and personal experience has shown) that failure is indeed an option. Akin to Veruca Salt on the Eggdicator, maybe resolutions have a built-in failometer that gives a new meaning to the “Freedom to Fail Forward”?
Despite the ominous, impending doom awaiting me with my own resolutions, I have, like many other optimistic and forward-looking types, thought about and set time aside to write down my resolutions as a record not only of my own firm resolve, but also of where I wanted to see myself in the future. And I (theoretically) had the same intent this January, spurred into action after a friend casually asked over breakfast recently, “So what are your resolutions for 2017?” I’m not saying I already “pulled a Veruca” on this. But I have made resolution lists in the past that frankly made me feel like a failure, and not in a warm, fuzzy growth-mindset kinda way.
My original list percolating in my mind looked somewhat like this:
Declutter more (more on this later)
Engage your interests/hobbies more
Then I might have broken them down into a more definitive, delineated checklist, such as:
Exercise at least [X] times a week
Eat [XXX] calories/week, or Avoid [X,X,X,X,X….]
Read [XXX] books/articles/blogs/pages a day/week/month
Sleep [x] hours more per day/week
Blog [X] times a week/month
And so on…
But as with resolutions, life is a funny thing. Things, stuff, people, ideas enter into it that are seemingly random and coincidental, yet somehow osmotically make their way into our mental viewfinders, influencing our thinking and behavior whether consciously or not.
The real impetus behind exploring the concept of resolutions in this post is the fact that I want to be blogging again, should be blogging again, and had tentatively resolved myself (see previous list!) to start blogging again…and along came AJ Juliani’s blogging challenge, the external nudge that timely mirrors the internal one I’ve been giving myself for the last several months without much success until now. The stepping away from blogging hasn’t been a conscious decision, but rather a devolution of habits, along with the daily tedium of life getting in the way of big-picture life. The procrastinator’s brain and the perfection monster have also played roles in my distraction from the discipline of blogging; I have no shortage of ideas (hence the many recordings on my voice recorder app), but never seem to “get around” to putting them to digital paper.
What I’ve realized is that I don’t want to battle time anymore. But is my main enemy time? A lack of discipline or motivation? Or, maybe I’m crafting the wrong kind of resolutions to begin with?
The thing about resolutions is we make them, but we don’t always control them—they can end up controlling us. Resolutions can have a life of their own, despite their initial design to help us live ours. Resolutions are synonymous with goals, which is not to say that goals are bad—indeed they are not. However, goals can be crafted in a way that renders them too hard to achieve; the intent is true, but the loftiness is not always practical or realistic, activating that lovely internal failometer simply in how they are worded.
Brain Pickings’ recent post of resolutions from the writings of Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe and Woody Guthrie highlights their lists of general to-dos—which are supposedly perfect examples of those that “might also be the origin of both our highest happiness and our dreariest dissatisfaction.” Seems that psychologically speaking, if we want to succeed at our goals, resolutions, or even complete a to-do list, what’s listed has to be “specific, actionable, and non-conflicting.”
So should I then resolve myself to the fact that resolutions have to be precise if you want them to stick? What’s the macro got to do with the stickiness of the micro?
Other influences on my radar have likewise made me think more about the macro vs. micro dilemma.
One unexpected influence? The Weight Watchers commercials featuring Oprah. A year ago, she said she wanted 2016 to be the year of her “best body.” This year, the commercials show her as “living well” without depriving herself. I want that, too—not limited to food per se, but to life as a whole—who doesn’t want to be living well, however you define that for yourself? Definitely better than “living large,” connotations notwithstanding.
So I started thinking about what living a “full life” looks like in my mind’s eye, versus a list of what I should and shouldn’t do. Somehow this macro approach was already within my subconscious and conscious mind; I had ordered books that I wanted to read over the holiday break, yet tucked them away in my book stash (and likewise my mental broom closet) when cleaning up for a recent party, and promptly forgot:
When re-discovering these books, I also found another in my stash I had read last summer that fits within the macro-to-micro paradigm: Greg McKeown’s Essentialism.
Through reading and re-reading these books, I’m gaining insight into myself and my own process while figuring out if I should even bother with resolutions at all.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
One of my favorite picture books from childhood was The Big Tidy-Up. I LOVED pouring over the illustrations of the girl’s messy room, especially those of the flowery bed sheets made into a tent, fuzzy lollipops dotting the landscape; then as the girl realizes that nobody will visit her in her messy space, watching the transformation of her room and herself unfold into neat, tidy versions of themselves that everyone loves. As I write this, I’m realizing this book had a deeper psychic impression on me contrary to its initial intent, potentially accounting for my own challenges with neatness…anyway, the book’s message to kids: Keeping yourself and your space neat is better for you.
The same premise holds in true in Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. This book is the proactive antidote to George Carlin’s entertainingly anecdotal routine of how our “stuff” can overburden us to the point of exhaustion and inertia.
Ms. Kondo asserts that looking at decluttering or “tidying up” as a special, one-time event instead of a daily practice is key to altering your mindset permanently and freeing you up to focus on the life you want to live. Therefore, the way to clean up your life is to first clean up your space. Figuring out what to discard is about figuring out what you want, not what you don’t want. There’s only one question to ask yourself:
“Does this spark joy?”
This question could easily apply to other things in life, especially when drafting a list of resolutions. Of course, there are many non-negotiables that don’t spark joy, but maybe it’s in how we see them in their relation to what does that can make them more palatable and doable—taking the joyful actions as payback (or payforward) for the ones that aren’t so much; a means-to-an-end sort of justification to dejunking and jettisoning what’s getting in your way.
(One topic covered in the book I’m still not completely convinced about is her approach to discarding books…but that’s probably another blog post.)
I was drawn to this book simply for its title. Yes, I am organizationally challenged in the physical sense; I even received the “Bermuda Triangle Award” for messiest desk by my campus colleagues last year (supposedly a funny, lighthearted award meant only to poke fun…well, it definitely poked something). Yet like my fellow messy deskians, we often know where everything is—at least in our heads. I hoped this book would prove that messy can also be beautiful and productive. Come to find out, there is a “certain magic in mess.”
The book’s premise? Messiness in our lives is not something to avoid and eliminate, but explore and embrace, depending on the context. Mr. Harford shares how mess can contribute to creativity, collaboration, a more productive workplace (ahem), and even personal and professional resilience.
One relevant example from the “Life” chapter describes Benjamin Franklin’s challenges and approaches to tackling his own lifelong “resolution”—personal character development via “thirteen virtues.” Franklin used a notebook to document his weekly focus on each one in a rotation:
His plan was to spend a week focusing on a particular virtue, in the hope of making it a habit, before moving on to the next virtue, and the next, cycling through the virtues in an unending quest to become a better man. Each day he would reflect on his activities and every failure to live up to his own standards would be commemorated with a black mark in his notebook. The custom stuck with him his entire life.
What’s funny about this is that Franklin’s third virtue, Order, was the one that “vexed” him his whole life, openly confessing as such in his memoirs. Yet, the secret sauce here might be his method of metacognitive journaling—in a way his own therapeutic approach to self-help and improvement that allowed for progress and setbacks. Franklin possessed a Growth Mindset before there was a Growth Mindset, albeit an early American one—possibly one more thing he could be credited with inventing. Because he was a tough-love, long-haul life coach to himself, his big-picture resolution to become a “better man” had staying power, unlike most resolutions for us common folk.
Another resolution-related theory shared in the book centers on improvisation. Although we see organization, planning, and preparation as essential to productivity, or success, Mr. Harford contends that the messiness of “letting go” through improvisation is not only more flexible, fast, and economical—it can be more creative. Yay for creativity!
No matter how much we wish otherwise, life is unscripted; we can try to write what it looks like, but red herrings get thrown at us all the time that force us to go off script and improvise. As with other natural phenomena, there’s an interplay of actions and reactions in our daily lives that keep it percolating along, seemingly with a mind of its own at times. Improv is an accessible tool to help us stay the course and potentially improve it, taking into account the imperfections that can always pop up, even within our “best-laid plans.”
When I read this book last July, it was the perfect time to do so. I was on summer break, traveling on vacation, and had the time to indulge in the ideas without the external noise of the school year. As I look back through my underlines and jottings, I keep thinking to myself: “Duh.” I’m also asking myself: “Why aren’t you an Essentialist yet?”
Essentialism is about cutting out everything that’s nonessential to you, and focusing on what is, “living by design, not by default.” Moving beyond tidying up your personal closet, it’s about “creating a system for handling the closet of our lives.” From Elfa to Selfa, in essence.
The core mindset of an Essentialist is based on three realities:
-The choice is ours in how we expend our energy and time, and shouldn’t be given away intentionally or by default
-Noise is everywhere, and we have to decide what isn’t to—and for—ourselves
-There’s no such thing as “having it all,” because “all” will never be good enough—and we will never be “good enough” trying to do it “all”
The way of an Essentialist is formed by a systematic 3-step process:
- Explore: Expand your scope and comfort zone by exploring all the potential options – the “un poco de todo” or meze sampler plate strategy
- Eliminate: What’s nonessential is cut out – “No means no”—for real
- Execute: Make it happen! Just do It!
In the explore step, three questions really stand out in light of making resolutions:
What do I feel deeply inspired by?
What am I particularly talented at?
What meets a significant need in the world?
These simple yet provocative questions remind me of Thoreau’s oft-quoted lines about living a deliberate life. They cut to the quick of the Essentialist concept, reflecting Thoreau’s same sentiment “to front only the essential facts of [one’s] life.” If you can answer these questions, then making resolutions becomes the path to actualizing the answers to these questions.
Design the Life You Love
Born out of an experiment to test her own creative design process, Ayse Birsel’s book Design the Life You Love applies a four-step design thinking model to life:
- Deconstruction: Taking the Whole Apart
- Point of View: Seeing it Differently
- Reconstruction: Putting it Back Together
- Expression: Giving it Form
I’m still working my way through this workbook-journal, but have been struck so far by these two concepts-as-tools: Heroes and Metaphors.
Heroes you find inspiring actually reveal your own values and beliefs:
Your hero’s qualities are your qualities.
The values you recognize and admire in your heroes are your values.
I found this pretty mind blowing.
Another concept that resonated with me is thinking about your current and future life through metaphors. Metaphors play a huge role in our own learning process, and can also play a role in our approach to designing what our lives might actually be like, not just look like. One of the book’s exercises is to think of and draw both your present and future as a metaphor, using those as a baseline and vision to reflect upon how you will get from where you are now to where you want to be.
In this sense, resolutions are like the details in a larger drawing; what the picture looks like when you stand back should be one you’ve composed yourself and not the other way around.
How do we construct our lives from the outside in? How do we use the big picture to draw in the details of our daily life?
Are resolutions still worth making, in light of these ideas?
Maybe the place to start is with redesigning the word itself. It isn’t so much about the meaning of the word, but what it does. Resolutions are markers and instigators of transition; so maybe the word itself should transition from a noun to a verb.
Maybe it’s all about looking at resolutions instead as a way to revolutionize your own thinking, a chance to “reorder your life to reflect your values and your priorities instead of just tinkering at the margins.”
If that’s the case, maybe the stickiness of resolutions lies within the intersection of our ideas, choices, and actions. If the resolution embodies these three things, it may just “stay golden”?
And how might this exploration into the meaning and purpose of resolutions translate into helping students make their own resolutions that stick and work?
For non-students and adults like myself, I’d say it starts with looking at connections among the daily constructs of our lives and how we envision it as a whole—present and future. Then using these macro/micro connections to routinize a method in a wholly personal yet permeable synergy.
It’s like hackschooling—kids are masters of the mash-up and remix phenomenon, able to make new meaning that makes sense to them. Students adapt and learn to maximize their own school experiences for their own benefit, so why wouldn’t the same apply to remixing their own lives?
As in Essentialism, students should be given more choices and options to explore, versus only guided down one path; let them choose the path, or create their own, once they’ve had the chance to tread them. This goes too for the actual process of exploration. The proliferation of Genius Hour and Passion-based learning experiences for students is clear evidence for the power of choice in learning; how about digging even deeper and offering up a menu of approaches for designing their lives as learners?
We talk about teaching goal setting, metacognition, reflection, and personalized learning along with passion-driven inquiry and exploration. Why not adapt Ayse Birsel’s streamlined design process of deconstruction→ point-of-view→ reconstruction→ expression as a tool for examining where they fit within their own lives as learners?
Design the Life You Love offers a jumpstart to creativity and problem-solving, and could even be a instigator of curiosity, once you see all the “life parts” disassembled in front of you and begin to wonder how they all got there and how they could fit together differently—like take-apart tech, exploratory play, or other open-ended makerspace experiences.
But then again, maybe I’m being presumptuous—or actually underestimating young people’s handle on their own life design. Maybe this resolution thing is just a problem we adults have. With youth comes the freedom to fail forward without regret, something not as easy to do when you’re older.
As far as my own resolutions? Still a work in progress.
But one for sure is: Write shorter blog posts.