A Different Approach to the New Year

As I was scanning my email this morning, I expected to see a lot of posts on New Year’s resolutions . . . and I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s a common theme, of course.  No matter how last year went, there’s something “fresh” about January 1st.

If we had a good year, we want to make it better.  If we had a crummy year, we want a “do-over.”

So everybody has ideas on how to make resolutions stick, and they post them online.

I saw one that said we should only have one goal for the year.  Another said we need multiple goals, but need to prioritize them.  Others talked about setting goals, but then ignoring them and focusing on the activities that will get you there.

Who do we believe?  And how come we keep trying every year, but never quite succeeding?

I think it has to do with willpower.

dog_and_cat_at_table“Resolution” comes from the word “resolve.”  I looked resolve up in the dictionary.  It said:

To decide firmly on a course of action.

That’s willpower.

Willpower means we think, “I just need to make a promise to myself to do better, starting on January 1.”

So between now and then, we binge on bad choices.  After all, it’s our last chance to eat the things we’ll never eat again, buying things we’ll never buy again, and doing things we’ll never do again.  We know our bad habits are going to be conquered soon, so we don’t try to control them.

It’s our Mardi Gras before lent – a chance to live the way we want before the restrictions start.  We don’t have to exercise willpower for a few days, because we know it’ll soon take over our lives.

But there’s a problem . . .

It means we’re committing to pain, starting on January 1.  Willpower means we can’t do what we really want to do.  It’s a total commitment to the negative.

Willpower means committing to eating celery in a room filled with freshly-cooked bacon.

That can’t last very long, and it usually doesn’t.  A month from now, the bacon will still smell amazing – and the celery will be . . . well, celery.

So, what’s the alternative? 

Reframing the whole concept of New Year’s resolutions.

There are habits that need to be broken and changes you really want to make in your life.  That’s OK – but don’t make those your resolutions.  Work on those later in the year.

Look at New Year’s resolutions as a chance to make a few simple tweaks in your life, not a major overhaul.  Pick 2-3 things that you could do that would be sustainable, and that would actually make a difference over time.

A few tips:

Make positive resolutions. Sure, bacon isn’t the best for you – and you might want to deal with that later.  But for a New Year’s resolution, decide to drink 8 glasses of water every day.  It takes less willpower to add something positive than to eliminate something negative.

Track choices, not results.  If you want to lose weight, don’t focus on the scale – that only reflects what you’ve already done.  Focus on behaviors that you can control, like walking 10 miles this next week. You can’t control the past, but you can make choices about the future.

Start today.  January 1 is an artificial date; why not start today?  Pick two or three simple things you’d like to make a pattern in your life, then start immediately.

No, it won’t feel the same as in past years.  But how effective have these annual do-overs been in the past? You’ll be giving up the traditional resolutions, but doing something that might actually stick.

Maybe it’s time for a new way of jump-starting your success!

 

What simple thing could you commit to in this next year?  Comment below . . .

Getting Unstuck (How to Make the Right Decision)

Several years ago, my son and I had dinner at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant in San Diego. It’s a great restaurant, but it takes me forever to decide on a meal because it has a 20-page menu – and everything is good.

This particular night, Tim picked up the menu, glanced at the first page for about ten seconds, and put it back on the table.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing. I’ve already decided what I want.”

“But you’ve only looked at one page,” I countered.

“Right. I’ve learned to just read through the menu from the beginning until I find something that looks good, and that’s what I get. The next time we come here, I’ll start from that place in the menu and move forward and do it again.”

I think that’s a healthy way to live.

Have you ever been “stuck” in a tough decision, and you couldn’t figure out what to do? It could be anything from selecting a project team, to considering a new job, to buying a new car to moving to a new house.

Or it could be as simple as deciding what to order for dinner.

  • There’s more than one option, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each one.
  • You’re afraid that if you make the wrong choice, you’ll regret it later.
  • You’ve asked others for advice, and everyone tells you something different.
  • You’re worried what others will think if you make either choice.

Somebody called it “paralysis by analysis.” It’s when you don’t want to make a mistake, so you don’t make a decision.

The fear of regret keeps you from moving forward, so you get stuck in neutral.

If one choice has an outcome that’s obviously better than the other, it’s a no-brainer. But what should you do when both options would be OK?

  • You study both sides.
  • You consider what you’ll gain from making either choice.
  • You consider what you’ll lose from making either choice.
  • You take a walk to clear your head.
  • If the options are still about equal, you follow a simple principle:

Don’t worry about making the right decision.

Make a decision, then make it right.

Once you make the choice, don’t look back.

Sure, you’ll miss the benefits of the other choice. But once the decision is final, it frees you to put 100% of your energy into making that decision the best choice.

It’s time to put down the menu and enjoy the meal.

When Life Goes Badly

One day, a farmer’s old donkey fell into a well.  The donkey struggled for hours, but it was too deep.  There was no way out.

Trapped donkey

The farmer thought and thought and thought, but couldn’t find a way to rescue the old donkey.  There was no solution.

Since the donkey was old, and the well needed to be filled up anyway, he decided to just shovel dirt into the well and put the donkey out of its misery.

He invited his neighbors to help, and they all grabbed shovels and started throwing dirt into the well.  The donkey began to panic when he realized what was happening, but finally went quiet.

After a while, the farmer looked into the well.  He expected to see only dirt covering the donkey.

Trapped donkeyBut every time a shovel of dirt hit the donkey, he shook it off and stepped up on the new layer of dirt.  Over and over, he shook off the dirt and stepped up.

Soon the dirt reached the top of the well – and the donkey stepped up, over the edge and trotted off.

OK, it’s an old fable.  The first time I heard it, I was upset with the farmer for trying to bury his donkey alive.  The story breaks down in other ways as well.

But if I can overlook those details, there’s a good point in the story:

Life is like that.

We’re going to get hit with a lot of dirt.

It’s scary.  It’s painful.  It’s discouraging to know that circumstances – or even people – are trying to bury you.

The easy way out is to be a victim – to blame our circumstances for our misery.

The smart way out is to shake it off and step up.

Over and over again.

What’s the dirt in your life that threatens to bury you today?

What will happen if you don’t step up?

How can you use it to move forward — today?

Shake it off.  Step up.

How to Mow a Lawn

My favorite part of being in a baseball stadium is the grass.

It’s always perfect.  You know that the groundskeepers went to great lengths to get their mowing lines precise.  Relaxing with friends in the stands is always heightened by the park-like setting on the field.

Maybe I notice it because of my Dad.  When he mowed the lawn, the lines were always straight.  So today, that’s important to me as well.

My dad was born in La Mars, Iowa.  It’s a tiny little farming community, known as the “ice cream capital of the world,” the home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream products.

I’m not sure exactly how much farming my dad’s family was involved in, but he always loved working in our yard.  Some of that heritage must have stuck with him.

Grass lines on baseball fieldI remember him teaching me how to mow.  We had an old, non-electric push mower that looked like it had been picked up in an antique store.  I was small enough that I almost had to reach up to grab the handle.

“If you want a straight line, look across the yard and pick a spot at the far edge – exactly where you want to end up.  Then walk towards it with the mower.  But never take your eyes off that spot.  Don’t look down.  Don’t look at the mower.  Don’t look back.  Just stare at that spot until you get there.”

I stared straight ahead and started moving.  I could feel the mower tossing back and forth as it hit uneven ground, gopher holes and low spots.  I figured it would be a complete disaster.  But I kept staring at my destination.

When I got there, my dad said, “OK, turn around.”

I did.  I was amazed.

The lines were perfectly straight.

I tried it a few more times with the same result – perfection.

Then I got arrogant, and took my eyes off the target, glancing back halfway-through to see how straight my line was.  When I looked back, there was a sincere detour right where I had turned around.

“Why does that work?” I asked.  “The ground is so uneven, and the mower is tossing back and forth.  How can it make such straight lines?”

“When you look at the lines,” he said, “you try to make corrections based on what’s happening around you.  When you look at the target, your corrections are based on where you want to end up.”

The life lessons are obvious.

  • If we keep our eyes on the challenges we face daily, we lose track of the end result.
  • If we focus on the goal, it automatically helps us make the right choices.

Make some straight lines today.

Then eat some ice cream to celebrate.

Better Than New Year’s Resolutions

January 17.

Willpower around cookies

That’s the most common day for people to give up their New Year’s resolutions.

January 1 feels like a new start.  We think, “OK, this year is going to be different.  I’ll lose weight, save money, spend time with my family, watch less TV . . . “

We’re motivated.  We’re working from a clean slate.

It’s easy to make that list of resolutions.  All we have to do is grab last year’s list and dust it off.  It’s the same one we’ve had for years, so it’s still fresh.

The dictionary says that a “resolution” is “a serious decision to do something.”  That sounds easy enough.

All it takes is willpower, right?

Willpower around cookiesSo we do well for a few days.  Then it gets tough, but we hang in there.  Then we slip a little – then a little more.  We beat ourselves up for slipping — and finally, on January 17, we give up.

Here’s the problem: Willpower is limited.

According to research, it’s like we have a “willpower” tank.  When it’s full, we can resist temptation.  But when it’s empty, we can’t.  That’s why we resist the box of doughnuts someone brought into work all day, then stop at Baskin-Robbins on the way home.

In Dan and Chip Heath’s book “Switch,” they use the analogy of riding an elephant.  The rider represents logic, making specific decisions about where he wants to go.

But the elephant represents emotions.  The rider might be able to yank on the reins and move the elephant by logic for a while, but he soon becomes tired from the effort.  Then the elephant simply goes wherever he wants.

Most of the time, the elephant trumps the rider – emotions trump logic. For us, the only time the rider wins is when we have a crystal-clear picture of who we want to be and make conscious, deliberate choices in that direction.

So, what if, instead of making resolutions, we carefully thought through this one question:

What one thing could I do this year — that I’m not doing now – that would make the biggest difference in my life?

The answer would help us make decisions throughout the year.  That “one thing” would be so impactful, that we can clearly see the value of achieving it.

It takes more than a casual response like “get in shape.” (There are lots of shapes . . .)  It needs to be carefully crafted – something that’s specific, measurable and motivating.

A better answer might be, “I want to walk 1,000 miles by December 31, 2013.”  That’s about three miles each day.  So we would make a chart and put it in a place we would see it daily and mark off the miles.

If we normally watch two hours of television each night, we realize that by skipping one program, we could knock out three miles.  Or we could make a commitment to only watch TV while walking on a treadmill.

A year from now, a lot of stuff will be unchanged (probably the things we were going to make resolutions about).

But how would you – and your world – be different if this one thing came to pass?

It could genuinely give us a “new” year – instead of another edition of the “old” one.

So, what one thing would make the greatest difference for you?

Why We Work Best Under Pressure

I know where the low spots are in my yard.

Easy Way Hard Way sign

When it rains, I look for the puddles.  That’s where the low spots are.  The water always fills them first.

Like most things in nature, water takes the path of least resistance.  It’s like nature’s default setting.

It’s my default setting, too.

Most of my life, I’ve taken the path of least resistance.  When I have a choice between easy and hard, I tend to gravitate toward easy.  That means I procrastinate until things become urgent, then I scramble to get everything done at the last minute.  I’m able to produce at a world-class level when I’m under pressure.

So I say, “I work best under pressure.”

If I’m honest, I should really say, “I only work when I’m under pressure.”

Sound familiar?

  • We don’t start that assignment or project early because it’s easier to wait.  We don’t feel the pressure.
  • We don’t deal with relationship issues until they reach a crisis point, because it’s uncomfortable to bring it up.
  • We don’t put on our running shoes because it’s cold outside and warm inside – and the shoes will still be there tomorrow.

Easy Way Hard Way signThe only reason we don’t follow the path of least resistance is when there’s a strong reason – when the outcome of doing it is better than not doing it.

But when we don’t feel the pressure, we usually take the path of least resistance – by default.

If we felt the pressure earlier, we might take action earlier.  I’m thinking that if I gained 50 pounds every morning I didn’t exercise, or had crippling chest pains every time I ate a French fry, I might be more intentional about it.  I’d have a reason to overcome my default setting, because the outcomes would be immediate.

Some people just seem to be more disciplined than others.  Somehow, their default setting doesn’t seem to be the easier one – it’s the most effective one.  (Those people drive the rest of us crazy.)

But really, they start with the same default setting as the rest of us.  But over the years, they’ve made intentional choices to overcome inertia.   It’s become their new default setting, because they’ve made those choices over and over again for a really long time.

It’s become a habit.

The only way to change our default setting is to make individual choices over and over again.   It doesn’t work to say, “OK, from now on I’ll be disciplined.”  It means making a new choice repeatedly, each time the situation comes up.  When we mess up, we don’t beat ourselves up over it; we just make the right choice again the next time.  And the next.  And the next.

Rinse.  Repeat.

Over time, those choices start to become habits.  We learn to make choices that are based on what will happen in the future, not what’s the path of least resistance.  We train ourselves to focus on outcomes.

We don’t live by default; we live by design.

I don’t want to follow the path of least resistance.  But unless I consciously make choices to do otherwise, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

I want to live an intentional life.  Do you?

Why Today Counts

You check your phone shortly after waking tomorrow morning.

Surprised man holding money

There’s a text from your bank saying, “Someone deposited $1440 in your checking account last night.  It’ll only be there today.  Whatever you don’t use will be removed at midnight.”

What would you do?

If it happened to me, I would think, “OK, this is no little thing.  I’ve got some options:

  • I could spend it.
  • I could save it.
  • I could invest it.
  • I could give it.

But there’s one thing I wouldn’t do: Ignore it

Would you?

Surprised man holding moneyThat’s really what happens every day to each of us

But it’s not dollars.

It’s minutes.

Every day, we get 1440 minutes.  We start the day with them, and they’ll be gone when the day is over.

At the beginning of the day, we can choose what to do with them.  If we wait until the end of the day, those choices are made for us by default.

The good news is that it happens again tomorrow.

And the next day.  And the day after that.

But not forever.

So, we’ve got 1,440 minutes today (less, unless we’re reading this at midnight).  What do we need to know to make good use of those minutes?

  1. Time is limited.  There will come a day when those daily deposits stop.  So it’s important to make sure we use each day’s minutes wisely.
  2. There are no days that do not count.  Each day is unique, and provides unique opportunities.  If we ignore those opportunities today, they’re gone forever.
  3. Our future will be determined by our daily choices.
    • Good choices today will pay dividends in our future.
    • Bad choices today will make withdrawals from our future.
    • Not making any choices today gives our future away.
  4. Nobody becomes an overnight successNobody becomes an overnight failure.  It’s the culmination of our daily choices.
  5. If we’ve been making bad choices (or no choices), we can change that today.  One good choice moves our future forward.

Yesterday is gone, and tomorrow isn’t here yet.  Worrying about either one will distract us from being intentional about today.

So, how will you use your 1,440 minutes today?

 

Overcoming the Fear of Making Bad Decisions

My son, Tim and I were at a restaurant that has a twenty-page menu. It’s a great restaurant, but it takes me forever to decide on a meal because there are so many choices. This particular night, Tim picked up the menu, glanced at the first page for about ten seconds, and put it back on the table.

Baby chef

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing. I’ve already decided what I want.”

“But you’ve only looked at one page,” I countered.

“Right. In a restaurant like this, I’ve learned to just read through the menu from the beginning until I find something that looks good, and that’s what I get. The next time we come here, I’ll start from that place in the menu and move forward and do it again.”

Baby chefI thought about that for a while and realized what a wise choice that was. When we have too many choices, we get paralyzed because we’re afraid we’ll make a mistake. “What if I order something and then see something I like better? Will I regret my first choice?” Tim has overcome that dilemma by making his decision then putting the menu down so he doesn’t have to compare.

That happens in many areas of life. We’re often afraid to make a decision about a purchase, a job, a house, or a spouse because we’re worried we’ll make the commitment and then find something “better.” We assume that it’s better to skip the commitment so we’ll have the freedom to look around in the future.

For example, it’s hard to make a marriage work with that mindset. A couple commits to each other, but they wonder if they’ve made a mistake when things get tough. If retreat is an option, they’ll be much more inclined to leave the relationship. But if they have adopted a paradigm of commitment, there is a greater incentive to work through the challenges and make the relationship work.

I’ve known people who might be stuck in a dead-end job, and constantly gripe about their boss, their pay or their working conditions.  They’ve looked around some, done the research and actually have some possibilities of other positions.  The jobs are all good, but none of them are perfect. 

When they think of pursuing one, all they can think about is what they’ll be passing up from the other jobs.  They get stuck where they are and never make the change, because they’re afraid of regretting their choice later. 

They’re afraid to commit.

Planning is important.  It’s unwise to make a commitment without doing the “due diligence” to know what you’re walking into.  But a lot of people get stuck in the research phase, so they get stuck in their lives.

Trying to make the perfect decision can paralyze us. In our family, we’ve often said, “You might not always be able to make the right decision. But once you make the decision, make it right.”

It means putting the menu down after you place your order.

 

When have you gotten “stuck” because of fear of making a bad decision?  What did you do about it? (Or, what do you need to do?) Comment Below . . .