At the beginning of 2021, I was determined to change my habits and emulate that of a Fortune 500 company CEO who is up by 4:00 am taking his morning jog, and who will be seated at his desk by 6:30 am, ready to embark on the day’s business. I used a good chunk of my savings to buy a yoga mat and new running shoes because I had heard from the grapevine that not all shoes masquerading as running shoes are suitable for your knees. It started well. On New Year’s Day, I was eager to unlock greatness. But it soon proved a short-lived endeavour. On 2nd January I hit the ‘snooze’ button on my alarm clock and went back to sleep. By 5th January, I was dragging my feet like a desert-hike survivor, but above all else, my body had had enough. By the end of the year, the running shoes had gathered dust and I gave away my yoga mat to a cousin who needed it more than I did.
The aura of hope around the New Year and the accompanying peer pressure overwhelms most people. The need to change our old habits in line with the possibility of making our lives better comes naturally. Our struggles to muster this new version of ourselves have morphed into a Sisyphus task that has pushed mental health to the top of the charts among the things we want to address this year according to the Forbes Health Survey. Unfortunately, research shows that by Valentine’s Day, 80 per cent of the people surveyed will have dropped their resolutions and fallen back on their old habits.
The low success rates aside, resolutions give us the opportunity to breathe new life into who we are as individuals, and that is something admirable. It is the first difficult step in testing our resolve. The new vitamin pills, the fresh gym wear and subscriptions, or even the new exercise books bought, are necessary steps, so kudos to those who create the intention and space to start. The failure, therefore, lies in what is on the resolution list and how we tackle it.
Let’s start with what is on the list.
Back in 2012, I learned that setting vague and lofty ambitions just doesn’t cut it. At the time I was determined to become an early bird and catch the metaphoric worm in the form of an ‘A’ grade as promised to my folks. Before schools opened I jotted down: “I will not be lazy this year. Waking up at 3 am to read will guarantee my success.” This note was meant for me, and it was accompanied by a sketch of a plan that would lead me towards this goal.
According to a study on successful New Year resolutions, by laying out my plans in this way I had already set myself up for failure. For one, ‘night-owling’ came very easily to me. I could sit up all night studying Calculus that wasn’t sinking in during the Mathematics double lesson earlier that day, and it would finally click in place well enough for me to be able to teach my peers but this meant that by the time morning came I would have set myself up for a challenge. My success the following morning depended on dipping my feet into a bucket of cold water. By doing that I presumed the rest would follow naturally! I was assured by my father and peers that this is the key I needed to unlock greatness.
After a month of intentional pursuit and the determination of a teenage girl trying to prove a point to everyone, I started falling behind. Slowly, I started loathing my mornings – I hated them before, but as the days went by, even my roommates, who were still in the race, began to irritate me. On any given day, weariness would have set in by 3 pm and I would be ready to hit my paper-thin mattress in the dorm. Later, after admitting that my resolution had failed, I sat down to interrogate myself in an attempt to find out why things were not working out. I later learnt in an article written in Scientific America that research showed that you need a fun path to aid you in the pursuit of a goal. Mine wasn’t fun, it was quite the opposite, thus the failure. I didn’t enjoy the morning cold, neither did I fancy the ice bucket I had to freeze my feet in. These are some of the reasons why I faltered despite my will to get that ‘A’ grade. School may have been an ideal environment that motivated my desire to be a part of the ‘5 am Club,’ but the resolution was unrealistic. It’s safe to say the club has never welcomed me in, despite my many attempts to join.
In an interview, Katy Milkman, the author of ‘How to Change’ with Ayelet Fishback, a social psychologist and author of ‘Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation’, elaborate on the need to have very specific goals. They cite the example of fitness as one of the many resolutions that people use. “I think goals are like baking recipes. You need to list the exact quantities: walking 10,000 steps a day is better than walking a lot because it tells you how much and how soon,” Fishback said. In short, how you frame your resolutions determines how you will achieve them.
Now that you’ve learnt one secret, let’s move to the next: the how?
Jotting down a bunch of very specific dreams can be great, even motivating sometimes, but it takes more than just writing them down and planning to achieve them. In 2020, I made a very specific goal of leaving social media for good. I was getting anxious about my career trajectory and comparison with others became a part of my everyday routine. To curb it, I decided to abandon social media completely until I felt at peace enough to watch videos about #Workflow and #workhardplayharder shot by my peers in Watamu and Diani. As we ushered in the new year I logged out of all my social media platforms in preparation to start from the proverbial clean slate. But it wasn’t to last. By January 4 my resolution had started to waver. By January 10 I was back on Twitter! The rest followed soon after, to the amusement of the people I had disclosed my resolution to. I was determined to dump my bad habit but forgot an important part of the next step, which was to immediately create a new habit to replace the other one. I had more time on my hands, considering how much I spent on social media, but I spent it fussing while actively taming my itchy fingers that wanted to be in the know of everything. An article in the Wall Street Journal puts it simply: If you want less time on your phone, you have a better chance of succeeding if you commit to reading a book as opposed to deleting an Instagram post.
Getting into new and healthier habits is difficult and involves a lot of self-awareness. A review on health through habits explores behaviour changes and explains reasons why weight-loss and fitness resolutions often fail. According to the expert article, most people who make resolutions do not fully understand the triggers to their bad habits. My matatu rides home are unconsciously spent on social media. Regardless of the time spent, catching up on the latest gossip on the phone, reading an article in The New Yorker, or even checking Instagram stories for the latest on ‘who’s getting married’ always forms part of the ride. The reason I subconsciously made it a habit is the reward I get from it, including a dash of dopamine and the being-in-the-know feeling, says behaviour psychologist Wendy Wood. She adds that creating new habits is a process that involves repetition and reward.
At the core of resolutions lie the habits that we need to change to make us better. With a repetition-and-reward system, the mind is tricked into believing that we are getting better at what we are doing, and gradually new habits take root.
And so this year, you can resolve to do things differently. It is not late yet. Make your resolutions smart and fun and align them with the person you want to be by December. Above all, enjoy the journey of becoming your best- self. Through the journey, we learn more about ourselves and our environment. I accept I am not a morning person; but to compensate for it I try to maximise on doing the things I enjoy during my productive hours.