New year, new ___ ?

If you are at all inclined to start this new calendar year with some form of To-Do list aimed at changing yourself, consider coming at this a different way.

First, create a list of the things you’re doing well. Acknowledge your strengths, changes you’ve made in the past, what you’re already doing differently now than you used to do.  Acknowledge how you’re already good; a good person, a good friend, a good parent, a good partner. How you’ve been supportive, compassionate, and selfless in the past year. Be generous. Give yourself real examples.

Why pat yourself on the back? Shouldn’t you be driving yourself to improve, grow, achieve more, do more? Go harder, get stronger, lose weight, eat better? Maybe. All those are choices, not requirements. Everything you think you want to improve about yourself is simply you passing judgement on your current self.

Judging ourselves isn’t entirely bad. There is plenty to be said for holding ourselves to standards and raising the bar every now and then. But if you’re truly serious about becoming someone different than you are now, then starting from a mindset of lack and focused on your shortcomings is not the best launching pad.

Discipline and willpower only get us so far, and there’s a good chance you’ve experienced this personally. The average resolution-based commitment for most people this time of year is two weeks. Many make it 30 days, especially if there’s social support. The outliers last 60-90 days, but then slide back to most of their old habits. Worse – those who rely heavily on discipline and willpower and then fail with this approach get a swift kick to their self-confidence, further lowering the likelihood of future success.  Bummer, huh?

Transformation – or even simple change – that relies predominantly on discipline and willpower is painful and woefully unsuccessful. Our cultural bias towards grit and determination keeps us trying what doesn’t really work. While these are helpful qualities, they are not catalysts. In fact, if your reasons for doing something are aligned with who you are and what you value, then grit and determination are hardly in the equation.

Interestingly, our success with long-term change increases when we are focused on the present moment rather than on a version of a future self. Being proud of what you’ve already accomplished in your life, grateful for all that you already have, and compassionate towards self and others fosters patience, dedication, and connection. Your heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, anxiety and/or depression lessen. All these emotions and feelings actually increase self-control, without the mental exhaustion. And self-control is the opposite of impulsivity – that which sends us off the rails of good intentions.

Ask someone you know who has made a lasting change in their life. They will likely tell you that patience and perseverance got them there. That their path was forward, but perhaps not always straight. Mindset matters, and cultivating one that supports you and celebrates you  – rather than exhausts you – could be your key to success.

Hat tip to David DeSteno and more on the use of positive emotions over discipline and willpower, here.

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