The evidence for whether new year resolutions are effective is mixed. Make them Smart – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely – and they can be a spur to effective action. But vaguer resolutions such as “get fit”, “lose weight” or “stop wasting so much time” often conceal a deeper self-criticism that undermines our intentions.
The underlying approach is that we must simply try harder – sometimes at everything at once – and that sets us up to fail. We binge on diets, then binge on food and, finally, binge on guilt.
I’ve found that apps that help turn my unfocused intentions into a Smart plan really work. A Couch to 5K programme got me running, and I liked having a clear objective. It feels good to be fitter. You might see a bald bloke running with a waddling gait, but I see goals met and targets smashed – and a 10K in my sights.
But there’s a downside to resolutions, even when they’re effective and we achieve them. The focus on results has got me checking my Google Fit stats a little too often, introducing an element of data-driven compulsiveness to the simple activity of exercising my body. It reminds me of the impulse I sometimes feel to check my Facebook likes and Twitter followers. I sense it fits with a wider cultural current: the strain coming from the constant effort to keep up, be productive and get ahead is a source of stress, not its cure.
Recognising this, part of me wants to simply ditch my phone and forget the targets. I’m a Buddhist, I’ve taught mindfulness for 15 years, and that part of me wants to be unproductive and turn, as we say on our courses, from doing mode to being mode.
My favourite exponent of such non-utilitarian living is John Keats, who advocated “delicious diligent indolence” in a letter written to a friend in 1818: “Let us not,” he writes, “go hurrying about and collecting honey, bee-like buzzing here and there for a knowledge that is to be arrived at, but let us open our leaves like a flower, and be passive and receptive.”
Keats’s word “diligent” signals that, by indolence, he doesn’t mean inertia. Maintaining an alert receptivity requires what Buddhism calls practice – a conscious effort to develop it over time, which should be undertaken with “balanced effort” – a middle way between wilful or compulsive striving and self-indulgence.
The Buddha’s image of this was of a musical instrument whose strings must be tuned neither too loosely nor too tightly.
Drawing on my experience as a mindfulness teacher, I have some suggestions for middle-way practices that foster the alert receptivity Keats recommends. The first is learning to settle the mind. Meditation is by no means the only way to do this, but it’s popular because it offers simple methods for shifting attention from the flow of thoughts to something calming, like the breath. If you’ve tried it for yourself you’ll know that the thoughts don’t just stop, and you sometimes feel uncomfortable. But settling the mind and stepping into a different kind of awareness is actually a fairly straightforward process.
That’s a start, but the value of doing this is the “mental space” that opens up by freeing yourself from mental strain and clutter. So it’s important that we don’t just fill the space up again with more input. Buddhism has always spoken of the need to “guard the gates of the senses” – to manage what we expose our minds to, if we want them to develop. And that takes on fresh importance when, with a few clicks, we can access an effectively unlimited supply of movies, music tracks, websites and just about any other diversion we can imagine.
There’s not much point in achieving a goal like getting fit or losing weight if it becomes a new source of stress. What I’m really seeking as I run is a sense of flourishing and vitality, and that can only happen by being fully present and aware in each moment, not just when I reach 10K.
A more mindful way of living values simplicity over consumption and allows space between activities. It focuses on doing one thing at a time and doing it fully. We need time to reflect and to be curious.
These things can be practices, and perhaps you can frame them as Smart resolutions. But in the end we don’t just need to be smart. We need to be wise.