A NOTE ON THIS POST – I wrote this the day the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on Russia and Ukraine. Didn’t seem the right time to publish it. In the ensuing weeks, R&U tensions escalated, the “Freedom Convoy” cemented its occupation of Ottawa, ‘Liz tested positive, ‘Murica passed 900,000 COVID deaths, and I learned California’s droughts are actually irreversible aridification. Yesterday, Putin went to war, making this the least appropriate day in nearly a month to share a self-absorbed piece of fluff – but if a more appropriate day lies in the offing, I can’t see it. Either I publish now, or this post stays on hold till next January. So, begging your indulgence . . .
Ask me, nothing ruins a good workout faster than a crowded gym floor. The elevated noise level, elevated testosterone level, and additional energetic-emotional load I carry when there are more people about cramp my style and ruin my mood. I don’t like queuing for a treadmill, waiting for a workbench to free up, or realizing every machine and cable-pulley system I use in my program is already in use. I hate scouring the room for the one-and-only 12-lb kettlebell some idiot ditched in a random corner. I double-hate racking the multiple 45-lb plates the last guy (it’s always a guy) left on the straight bar to advertise how much he can press (ooh, I’m in awe). And doing sets with the guy (always a guy) who refused to work in with me scrutinizing my efforts with put-upon impatience? Yeah, I’m not a fan.
Back in the day, when I was a gym regular (pre-COVID, I’m saying), I avoided these annoyances by working out during off-hours. At the gym or on the road, high-traffic is a constant: 7-9am and 5-7pm, Monday-Friday.
Ok, fair enough, commuter rush hours around large urban centers have expanded to more like 6-10am / 3-7pm. Or worse. Good luck finding any hours that aren’t rush-hours in the greater Seattle area. Traffic up there is insane, non-stop.
Point is, gyms are busiest on weekdays just before folks clock-in and just after they clock-out of their day-jobs. As evidence, I offer last month’s group exercise schedule for Mondays at my gym — a “health club” in a town teeming with retirees like me who aren’t constrained by 9-to-5s.
Pretty sizable gap there, between 10:30am and 4:30pm, right? No problem getting in a good workout. February through December that is. In January, omg. My gym, your gym, all gyms are Seattle — rush hour, non-stop. Courtesy of New Year’s resolutions.
The January gym ordeal is totally irrelevant to me now. Haven’t been to the gym since March 2020. It wouldn’t even have crossed my mind, if this hadn’t caught my eye: “A Study of 800 Million Activities Predicts Most New Year’s Resolutions will be Abandoned on January 19: How You Can Create New Habits that Actually Stick”.
I warrant the date buried in that mess of a headline (winner of the Longwinded award in the “Click-Bait” category) has as much validity as “it takes 21 days to form a new habit”. Which is to say, none. Good thing, too. If the timelines were true, we’d all be doomed to blow our New Year’s resolutions just days before they became routine.
That bit about us giving up on our resolutions before the month is out, though . . . that is true, more’s the pity. Assuming we make resolutions in order to improve our quality of life, ya gotta wonder if this popular end-of-Yuletide tradition doesn’t do more harm than good. Starting out a new year with an epic fail can’t be great for one’s self-esteem.
I’m coming off anti-resolution here, but fer-reals I’m not. I’d even argue that our ability to resolve to alter a core behavior — an ingrained response to conditioning, a survival mechanism spawned by trauma, a pattern rooted in a genetic predisposition, a physical addition, a psychological crutch — and then make good on that promise to ourselves is one of our species’ few redeeming qualities. We can’t all do it, we can’t do it all the time, but that anyone can do it at all ever is flat brilliant.
I was 10-years old the first time I witnessed someone make an abrupt, life-changing, 1800 turn-around.
Like everyone else of their generation, my parents smoked. No idea how old Babs and Joe were when they started. Odds are, they were pretty young. By the time I came along, they were seriously addicted; not chain smoking, but lighting up at regular intervals every day, all day long. I think Dad’s brand was Chesterfield Kings (swayed by the cool guy in this ad, perhaps?) till he switched to . . . Winstons? I know it took many years, many tries, and many detours into filter tips, menthols, and cigars before he kicked the habit.
My mom smoked Camels. Big time. Until the day she quit. The day Luther L. Terry, M.D., Surgeon General of the U. S. Public Health Service, released the initial report of his Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. On 11 January 1964 it became official: smoking was bad for your health. So she went cold turkey. Never smoked again.
First lesson I picked up from that experience: people are capable of turning over new leaves. Second lesson: if the conditions are right.
I expect the right conditions vary greatly from person to person, resolution to resolution — with two exceptions. Motivation and timing.
Ruing the poundage that made it impossible to squeeze into that killer outfit we had planned to wear on New Year’s Eve may get us onto the treadmill and off the chips for a while, but it won’t permanently alter our diet-and-exercise lifestyle. It can’t. Because what’s at work here isn’t resolve. It’s willpower.
For me, willpower is the reserve of unwavering intention we use to carry out our plans and fulfill our desires. Sounds like resolve, sure, but resolve is more than fierce determination. Resolve entails readying the mind in conjunction with fixing on a course of action. It’s about making a firm decision and settling on a strategy to see it through.
Willpower is a component of resolution, the energy boost that propels us over the initial threshold and feeds our tenacity on the dark nights of the soul. Just as adrenaline helps us escape the hungry wolves (literally and metaphorically; bodies don’t differentiate between sundry sorts of stress), willpower helps us conquer our cravings and stick to the program. But when chronic stress puts our adrenals on continual high-alert, they bug out on us — adrenal fatigue. Same with willpower. When we continually drain the reserve tank on our daily commute, we end up stranded in an emergency — willpower fatigue.
Willpower gets resolutions off the ground and bolsters self-discipline when temptation strikes, but for staying the course, it can’t cut it. It’s not designed to form new habits; it’s a stop-gap to keep us from reverting to old ones. Under the strain of cumulative or sudden stress, “unwavering intention” wavers, willpower crumbles, and resolutions fail.
Wanting better health, or freedom from the bottle, or whatever isn’t the motivation a resolution requires, even if we want it with all our hearts. In my (limited and completely subjective) experience, the right motivation — the one all successful resolutions have in common — is an adamant desire to stop doing harm. To ourselves, to others. Often to both. Or, conversely, a vehement desire to do good.
Without that underlying desire born of self-love, self-respect, and/or compassion, a resolution’s specific aims are more likely to flounder.
I’m certain “do no harm” figured prominently in Mom giving up her smokes. She truly wanted to stop jeopardizing her health and start modeling healthier habits. At an incredibly tender age, my daughter resolved to quit nursing to sleep, not because she wasn’t enjoying it, but because I was uncomfortable (I was preggers again, and my tits were sore). My son did did an overnight turn-around in 2nd grade when he realized his behavior at school was making life more difficult for us — his family — than it was for him.
On the “do-good” side of the scales, I have friends and family who have successfully resolved to give up single-use plastics, see a dentist twice a year, curtail screen time after 9pm, and grow their soul by committing to a without-fail daily meditation practice.
I’m not saying wishing ourselves or others well is all it takes. Radical behavioral change is highly complex, intensely individual, and not always possible. I’m saying that when a resolution sticks, the desire do right by someone or cease doing them wrong is invariably a factor.
As for timing, I see two contenders.
Surprise-attack timing — a near-death experience or “Act of God” (by my definition, an extraordinary, unforeseeable event or natural disaster that triggers a major upheaval) — can jolt us into an about-face. While this type of timing is brutal, its undeniable impact significantly ups our chances of maintaining the altered perspective and may even send us off in the new direction with some momentum. No guarantees, of course. Some anti-vaxxers who nearly die of COVID become proponents of the vaccine. Others rise from their near-deathbeds as anti-vax as ever.
A more common timing is the deadline, as in the day the report comes out. The advantage to controlling the launch date of a resolution is the resolver gets some prep time. Made a difference with my mom’s resolution, absolutely. No way she could have cold-quit the moment she picked up the newspaper that day (“TIE CANCER TO CIGARETS” was The Chicago Tribune‘s banner headline) if she hadn’t been psyching up to do just that for quite a while.
The Surgeon General’s report was a synthesis of more than 7,000 bio-medical articles that fingered tobacco-smoke inhalation as a major cause of laryngeal and lung cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women, and the primary cause of chronic bronchitis. (Safe bet women’s health got short shrift because significantly less research was conducted on that half of the population.) Mom was a smart cookie; well read, well informed, highly interested in health matters (a Virgo). Mos def she was up on the bad-tobacco buzz that led to Doc Terry’s announcement, and had resolved to quit smoking “the day the report comes out” well in advance of its publication.
New Year’s resolutions fit neatly into the deadline-timing category, plus “new year/fresh start” has powerful symbolic appeal. I myself made a New Year’s resolution once. Samhain Eve, 2012. I lit a fire in a wee bronze cauldron, sat skyclad before it, and resolved to leave everything that was holding me back, weighing me down, or keeping me from being my best, truest self behind in the old year. A few weeks later, our home burned to the ground.
I subsequently resolved to be more careful when making prayerful resolutions.
Anyway, if New Year’s passes the timing test, why do so many New Year’s resolutions fail? My guess, it’s the arbitrary nature of the deadline. Sure, we want to tap the magic of the moment and turn over a new leaf as we turn the calendar page (or swipe to the next calendar screen more like). But hitching our resolve to an annual exercise in addition doesn’t give it any more oomph than picking a day at random and marking it with a big red X.
Deadlines work best when they’re directly connected to the resolution’s intention. Mom’s quit-smoking date was tied to the unveiling of the Surgeon General’s report. I’ve known people who resolved to break risky stress-management habits as soon as they finished their dissertation, dubious stimulant habits as soon as they stopped working the night shift, and heart-stopper dietary habits once they got their lab results — and followed through when those days came.
But resolutions are rarely date-specific. And that means the right time to make a resolution is when the time is right. I’m not being facile. When we’re ready to make a massive change in our life, we know it. We’re the only ones who can know it. And, if we can, that’s the time to do it.
Parkpoint Health Club’s annual aggravation period passed me by, but I’m sure that even with COVID mandates restricting how many people are allowed in the weight room at a given time, the gym went through its usual January spate of new memberships and predictable February ebb. Maybe y’all made New Year’s resolutions too — and if so, more power to you. As for me, I remain unresolved.