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How to stick to your resolution (for real this time)

Chris Plehal

I’ve never kept a New Year’s resolution in my life.

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I have resolved to exercise more, drink less, write every day, volunteer, eat less meat, keep a journal, learn guitar, stop picking my nose, and lots of things I have now forgotten. For the first few weeks of the year, I follow my plan perfectly. Then I miss a day, say “screw it”, and that’s that. But right before New Year’s Eve 2014, I started meditating daily, and I’ve been doing it ever since. How was I able to do that when all my other resolutions bombed? To be honest, it sort of happened by accident. In December 2014, I was struggling with anxiety. I’ve battled it my whole life. I had no experience with meditation, but I began researching it as a way to calm my choppy mental waters. The first day I meditated went like this: I got up. I walked the dog. I sat on a chair in my office. Then I opened the Headspace app on my phone and started a meditation session. When the ten-minute session was over, a message popped up on the app: Current Run Streak — 1 Day. That was interesting. The perfectionist in me began to tingle. How high could that number go?

I began following the same routine every day: walk the dog, meditate, check my streak number. Each time the number ticked up, I got a tiny burst of pleasure. I found myself looking forward to that moment. In his book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Charles Duhigg breaks down how habits are formed: “First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop … becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.” Without meaning to, I had set up a cue-routine-reward pattern for meditation. It was like those cartoons where a donkey chases a carrot. My carrot was my streak number. This routine got my butt into the meditation chair every morning. And after a few months, I started to notice little changes in my mental patterns. I felt less anxious. More patient. When stress reared its ugly head, I was able to step back and approach the situation calmly. I felt good. Then one day, the unthinkable happened. I missed a day. My streak reset to zero.

My spirit was crushed. If I couldn’t maintain my perfect streak, what was the point? I got angry at myself, then even angrier when I realized the flaw in my whole approach: meditation isn’t about perfection. It requires effort for sure, but too much effort is self-defeating. By striving for absolute perfection, I was going against the values of acceptance and self-compassion I was trying to learn. I took a few days off. (OK, it was a few weeks.) But with a little distance from my daily routine, a new idea began to take shape: the streak wasn’t my only carrot. The benefits of meditation I had been feeling—calmness, patience, generosity—those were rewards in themselves. And those rewards didn’t just apply to me. They benefited the people I interacted with every day. If I couldn’t get motivated to meditate for myself, maybe I could do it with others in mind. It took a while, but I eventually got back in the chair and, little by little, restarted the habit. Today I’m less rigid with my practice. I still try to meditate every day, but if I miss a day here or there, I don’t panic. An ironclad routine got me started, but part of my meditation journey is learning to take a softer approach. So as the New Year approaches, maybe don’t “resolve” to meditate. Instead, find your carrot. Figure out that joyful feeling and let it carry you forward. You don’t have to be perfect, but you’ll be doing your best, working to become a better person. And that’s a resolution worth keeping.

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