Author’s note: In the category of setting expectations … I usually aspire to write an inspiring, uplifting and/or thought-provoking essay in this space. Today,I am opting for purely pragmatic. I’ve joined the annual New Year’s “how to keep your resolutions” hype in the hope that my thoughts may prove helpful. Here goes:
For the final road lunch on the three day drive home to Vermont from Florida, where my family spent Christmas vacation, I chose a bagel shop which makes a lox supreme sandwich I adore. I’m pretty sure “supreme” refers to how much cream cheese they pile on. Maybe that’s why my son Ben questioned my order. “Mom,” he said, “are you sure you want to do this to the future you?”
I was sure, but I understood his question. The day before, we had listened to a Hidden Brain podcast with Shankar Vedantam callled “Creatures of Habit.” Vedantam’s guest, psychologist Wendy Wood, talked at length about the frequently conflicting desires of “present me” (who in my case wanted that salmon, cream cheese and bagel) and “future me” (who as always, boringly, every New Year wants to weigh less). Both Ben and I found the present me/future me framework helpful for understanding why it can be so hard to make changes we know would be good for us.
That day, I was comfortable giving present me a superb bagel sandwich because I had a plan to benefit future me, starting the next day. We were driving on New Year’s Eve. The desires of future me would take hold on New Year’s Day. (So cliched, but there you go.)
And they have. I’m less than a week into 2023, but so far so good. Thus, I am sharing with you my tools. First, I believe in realistic goals. Second, for best results, the goals should be internally driven — not what someone else or the media or peer pressure thinks you should do.
It is easier to not go it alone. I had already decided to go without alcohol (in my case, a glass of red wine at dinner every night) for about six weeks when I heard about Dry January. So now I’m part of big team., including my activist friend Karen. We were both at an Indivisible Calais dinner party last night with many alcohol option. I think I would have held firm without Karen there, but she certainly gave me added strength to decline.
My husband, who wasn’t at the party with me, is always a reliable team member. We have different needs and make different choices. We are also each deeply invested in the well-being of each other’s “future you.” We each cheer the other on.
And I’m so happy to have Judy as my gym buddy! It is so much more fun to go to the gym together. Even if we don’t go at the same time, we feel spurred on by the other’s commitment. Thus, Judy is enormously helpful to keeping me on track, gym-wise – something the future me really needs. because present me has osteoperosis. Going to the gym has actually led to increased bone density! Future me will be pleased.
I am such a big believer in accountability, I have several active accountability systems. Judy is one; I text her every morning. Another system is keeping to-do lists. Some folks see kind of a tyranny in such lists. I find them helpful, and take great satisfaction from crossing out finished items. I keep an additional daily chart, which is also rewarding as I see daily evidence of moving closer to my goals.
And then there are stickers. I bring out the stickers when I have set an especially daunting task for myself, like Dry January. This is a big challenge. Present me definitely wanted a glass of wine at the party last night. Present me also wanted to “earn” a sticker. You see, for every day I go alcohol free, I put a sticker on the calendar. To keep it interesting, I bought several varieties from the local stationary store,where the owner told me he had only lasted one day doing Dry January and he wants to see my sticker-filled calendar at the end of the month. More accountabiilty!
You might think the sticker idea is a little bit whacky. I think it is fun. More importantly, it works. That little bit of brain reward helps present me stay on track. Plus, they give me pleasure.
And pleasure is the final tip I have to offer. I knew giving up my red wine each night would be a lot easier if I had a pleasurable alternative. I picked, tart cherry juice, mixed with some seltzer, which is perfectly delightful.
I guess the overall moral to the story is this: present me, or present you, doesn’t have to suffer unduly to do what’s right for our future selves. A team equals relationships with shared purpose, and there’s not much better than that to make a person happy! Accountability satisfies our brains, and provides a sense of accomplishment — another valuable happiness building block. Finally, there’s pleasure, also good for happiness! So, yay, let’s do this!