Many years ago, my then three-year-old daughter Katie told me, “I just met the nice fat lady who lives next door.”
“That’s great, honey,” I said. “But from now on, let’s call her Mrs. Ellis.”
Katie frowned, “What if I forget?”
“No problem,” I said, “I’ll remind you.”
Katie thought a moment longer, then asked, “What if I refuse?”
That was one of those special parenting moments, the moments we realize we have no ultimate control over our own tiny toddlers, let alone anyone larger.
“Oh well,” I remember thinking, “at least I can control myself.”
January is the month when many of us, overfed and overworked by the holidays, set out to control ourselves. We take deep breaths, face the new year, and set resolutions that will launch us into higher levels of health, wealth, and overall success.
And then we fail to keep them.
Not all of us, of course. Various studies show that a whopping 8% of us will keep our resolutions this year! Well, almost 8%. And definitely not all year.
As a coach and self-help writer, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why resolutions are so hard to keep. Here’s what I’ve learned:
When we approach our New Year’s goals, most of us set out to control the uncontrollable. The problem is that we’re not working with our adult human selves, here. Not even our inner toddlers. No, when we make resolutions, we’re almost always trying to control a reptile.
Let me explain. Your brain has three layers. On the surface, near your skull, is the part that processes verbal ideas (like resolutions). Below that is a middle area where complex emotions arise. Underneath that, at the core of your brain, lies an ancient structure that first evolved in reptiles, still reacts like a reptile, and—here’s the kicker—can hijack the rest of your brain like Godzilla whenever it feels threatened, stressed, or deprived.
Here’s how the uppermost and innermost parts of your brain interact when you’ve set some resolutions and you’re trying to keep them.
VERBAL BRAIN: I resolve to get up by 6:00 AM each morning.
REPTILE BRAIN: No.
VERBAL BRAIN: I resolve to pay close attention in meetings.
REPTILE BRAIN: No.
VERBAL BRAIN: I resolve to answer all my emails every day.
REPTILE BRAIN: What?
VERBAL BRAIN: I resolve to engage in strenuous cardiovascular activities.
REPTILE BRAIN: Takes over body, eats a cheesecake, falls asleep.
Once the reptile brain takes over, there’s literally no chance you’ll follow through on abstract, stressful promises. So the question to ask isn’t “How do I get myself to follow my New Year’s resolutions?” Instead think, “How do I get a reptile to keep my New Year’s resolutions?
It’s difficult, but not impossible.
My favorite reptiles are tortoises, which are not ambitious, or even particularly mobile. But they can be taught, using techniques pioneered by exotic animal trainers. I’ve been using these methods on myself for years—years when I’ve actually managed to keep my New Year’s resolutions. So this year, I invite you to join me for “Turtle Training 2022.” Here are the guidelines for making resolutions that work.
If you’re feeling anxious or perhaps angry at yourself, you won’t keep your resolutions. Any fear or tension around the goal comes from your fight-or-flight instinct, which is the feeling you get when your inner reptile is upset. A troubled inner reptile will not do what you want. Instead, it will retreat to self-calming behaviors like smoking, eating, and staring blankly at bright images online.
So when you sit down to make a resolution, start by relaxing and allowing yourself to be exactly as you are. Instead of “I’m a lazy loser and I’ve got to change now!” think “I’m fine as I am, but it might be fun to do this one thing even better.”
Before you try to train any animal, you need to get curious about it. What does it naturally enjoy? What strengths does it have? It’s always more effective to build on those strengths, rather than trying to get it to do something that’s not in its nature.
For example, real tortoises can learn to come when called or knock on doors—but good luck teaching them the command “Attack!” It’s just not their thing.
By the same token, resolutions that build on your natural inclinations will work better than simply demanding some random virtuous behavior. So be curious about your strengths. Observe and build on them. If you don’t love reading but want to learn more, try audiobooks. If you can’t stand the gym but want more fitness, take long walks outside. Nurture your true nature.
Reward is much more powerful than punishment when training any animal. If you frighten or hurt your inner turtle, it may do what you want until the moment it gets a chance to run away, hide or bite.
To succeed, resolutions need to be intrinsically rewarding, or accompanied by something pleasurable. When I write, for example, I wrap myself in a fuzzy blanket and sip a tasty warm drink. Usually, I lie down with my laptop on my knees. I am doing this right now.
By “creepy” I don’t mean you should start lurking in the shrubbery near celebrities’ homes. I mean that when making resolutions, you should aim to creep along in a series of teeny tiny actions I call “turtle steps.”
A turtle step isn’t what you could do on a typical day, or even a bad one. It’s what you could do on a day when you have food poisoning, the babysitter quits, and the toilet explodes. Turtle steps are so small you doubt they’ll work. But they do.
Using turtle steps, I started my own company, raised children, and sustained my rickety body in a state of pretty consistent good health. My daily steps are things like “Answer one email,” “Do one sit up,” or “Put away one object.” Some days, that’s all I can manage. But often, one turtle step makes it easy to take a few more. And if it doesn’t, I still get the satisfaction of keeping my resolution, which motivates me to keep on creeping day after day after day.
Recently, an interviewer asked me how I’ve managed to be “so prolific.” This startled me, because I know myself as a sluggish, inept tortoise trying to live a human life. But it turns out that aligning with my whole self, staying calm, curious, and compassionate, has helped me keep a lot of resolutions. Slow and steady really does win some races.
So I hope you’ll join me for Turtle Training 2022. Though we both know that if you refuse, there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.
This essay was first published in Maria Shriver’s The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise.