• Derek Roger

New Year is the time for resolutions: a new year, a new opportunity, a celebration to mark the occasion. But how long do yours last? For most people, a week would be about average!

A resolution is a determination to break a habit. Put into context, what we’re actually doing is pitting one resolution against another, which is why it feels like a struggle. For example, we resolve to not eat any more chocolate, but this is contrary to the established desire to eat chocolate.

Successfully breaking a habit – sticking to the resolution – requires discipline, and discipline is doing what we’d prefer not to do. Just the idea that we have absolute free will to do what we want will usually be enough on its own to defeat the resolution, but when we examine our behaviour more closely it turns out there’s very little free will at all. Most of our thoughts and actions are habitual, conditioned by what we like and don’t like, and these habits are fostered and maintained by emotion. Everything we do is emotional, although this is obvious only at the extremes of the things I really hate doing and the things I love doing: given the choice between washing the dishes and having another cup of coffee, the coffee will generally win.

Training programmes are designed to provide ways of replacing inefficient habits with efficient ones. If you only use two fingers on your keyboard, training in touch-typing will change that and speed up your computing skills. However, training programmes only offer the means, not the discipline, and if you don’t continue to practice touch-typing the old way will quickly reassert itself. This is an emotional decision: I’m comfortable/happier using two fingers, and using all ten is an effort. Paradoxically, if you are able to maintain the discipline you then wonder what the fuss was all about, and touch-typing has by then become the new habit.

Touch-typing is a simple example, and the benefits are quite quickly apparent. Implementing more subtle life skills like resilience requires more discipline, but provided that the programmes really work, the pay-off is correspondingly much greater. Follow-up research on The Challenge of Change training programmes has shown that if participants stick to the practice they become happier and more efficient, and make better leaders as well as team members. Being resilient means being free of stress, but stress is not inflicted on you from the outside, it is a self-inflicted injury incurred by continuing to ruminate about emotional upsets. After a heated argument that you ended up losing, how often afterwards did you go over and over it, imagining that you’re saying all the things you didn’t actually say and winning the argument? Nothing changes, you still lost. You might feel better when the thought of revenge is running, but since nothing’s changed you have to go on and on doing the same thing, like chocolate after chocolate.

What’s required to overcome the habit of ruminating is to wake up out of the nightmare and to put things into their proper perspective. Where New Year resolutions often go wrong is to mistake discipline for denial. The more determined you are to not eat the next chocolate, the more attractive it becomes. Just so with rumination. No matter how much you resolve to not ruminate, repetitive thoughts do keep coming to mind. The key is to neither block them out nor indulge them, but to simply acknowledge them for what they are - just thoughts, that can never satisfy. The final step of letting go of the desire to ruminate can then be taken. Letting go is what discipline is really about, maintaining a detached perspective and seeing things for what they are: a chocolate’s just a chocolate, a thought is just a thought.

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