Jan 1, 2024
Her Perspective

New Year’s Evolutions

New Year’s resolutions — there, I said it — that phrase we love to hate this time of year. It’s a risky way to start this story, I know. I usually manage to get more than three words into an essay — maybe a few paragraphs — before I start to lose folks. But bear with me, please. I think I’ve figured out a way to befriend the concept again, and really make it work in our lives.

While January 1 is and forever will be, objectively, a mere turn of a calendar page, it has, through the decades, been the quintessential “fresh start” day — the “tablula rasa,” clean-slate-day — upon which to write our goals and aspirations for the coming months. And to add to the allure, this year, January 1 occurs on a Monday, which, as everyone knows, is the only proper start-day for dieting, house-decluttering and email-purging.

But wait! There’s more. This January, that date is extra auspicious, as it’s a leap year — and the next New Year’s Day that falls on a Monday in a leap year is not until 2052. By then, I’ll likely be dead, rendering all attempts at self-betterment inarguably problematic. So, better get it right this year!

And I’m confident I will! I’ve got a system that really works for me. Maybe it will for you too.

See, the problem isn’t setting goals on January first; that’s fun. It’s maintaining adherence beyond January 17, the date that’s been unofficially dubbed “National Ditch Your Resolutions Day.”

Some years, it couldn’t come soon enough for me. Too often, my plans for world domination — or maybe a trimmer waistline or tidier desk — have been thwarted within weeks of “resolving” to improve. The excesses of the holidays — over-eating, over-spending, over-doing — deliver me to January with an ambitious plan, that in theory seems doable, but in practice soon feels overwhelming, even punitive.

Maybe, I unwittingly set myself up for failure. I’d try so hard, but after a few weeks (alas, sometimes days) of such discipline and effort, I’d just wanna relax into what’s comfortable — usually, the couch and a Netflix binge, a pint of Bluebell on my lap. One such lapse in itself, needn’t be problematic. But I am notorious for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Once I mess up, it’s actually a subversive relief to throw up my hands and cry, “New Year’s Resolutions are stupid! More sprinkles please.” I had done this year after year. Around February, I’d look back and see soapy babies everywhere.

Not this year. And interestingly, not last year. In 2023, I tried a new strategy — or a system of strategies — and instead of attempting to white-knuckle a daunting list of New Year’s Resolutions, I approached my desire to improve more realistically. Instead of effortfully “resolving,” I focused more on naturally “evolving.”

Hence, my “New Year’s Evolution” plan. Guided by the best book on behavior change I’ve ever read — James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” — I slowly evolved into a person whose behaviors were more congruent with the type of person I truly wished to be.

Clear’s mantra became my mantra — “True behavior change is identity change.” Once I identified the “type of person” I wanted to be, it was easier to choose behaviors that “cast votes” for that identity and refrain from habits that opposed.

Of course, the type of person I aspire to be has to start in the realm of possible reality. Asserting that “I am a writer” even when I wasn’t publishing, was semantically true as long as grocery lists counted. But declaring that “I am a cat,” as much as I admire many of my kitty’s attributes, probably won’t make me more feline-ish, no matter how much I purr or bask in the evening sunbeams.

The secret, according to Clear, is to identify the “type of person you wish to be” and then “prove it to yourself with small wins.” For example, the assertions: “I am a health-conscious person, or effective leader or compassionate friend,” all imply a wide array of behaviors. We can choose the ones that help us evolve into better versions of ourselves over time.

Each “small win” is a vote for the identity you have chosen, and the beauty of this approach is that no election is won with 100% of the electorate. Even a landslide victory in this country is often considered a win with merely 55% of the votes.

For me, this means that the babies get to stay in their nice warm baths. I don’t toss them out with their bathwater on January 17 just because I missed a workout or a conference call or a birthday.

The compounding effects of this strategy can’t be overstated. I no longer have to campaign for votes for my identity as a writer. I have, over time, evolved into a columnist and author.

But I still draft a damn fine grocery list.