By Leslie Brian
In 2012, we will do everything perfectly and effortlessly. We will work out every day, actually read all of the assigned texts and catch up with all of the people we meant to see last quarter. We will go to office hours every week, roll out to social events and keep our email inboxes free of clutter. We vow to be more spontaneous and to check things off our Stanford bucket list. Oh, and obviously, we’ll also sleep eight hours a night. Casual.
It’s a nice picture, but a flawed one. In a way, it reminds me of my middle school mentality towards our monthly mile run. The night before the big day, I’d lie in bed and visualize myself bounding around the school track. One, two, then three, four — in my head, those obligatory four laps wouldn’t even leave me winded. Mind over matter; it was just that easy!
But no matter how much mental energy I expended, I always had to walk at lap three. Despite the fact that I never practiced in between runs, I assumed I’d magically be able to improve at the next event three weeks later, just because I willed it to be so.
In a similar way, the dream of fundamentally revamping your life overnight just doesn’t translate into reality. You can dream about your dozen resolutions ’til the cows come home, but if you stop to think about it for a split second, the realization hits that there just isn’t enough time in a single day to do it all, let alone do it all well. Taken individually, each resolution presents a noble aspiration — who would disagree with vowing to study harder, work out more, socialize with old friends or get more sleep? But our lives don’t exist in a vacuum, and try as we might, there is only so much we can do to compartmentalize our schedules. In the real world, we all have to choose between resolutions: do you sleep more and sacrifice the problem set? Do you study that much harder or go to the party? Do you go to office hours or hit the gym?
There is no one answer: different circumstances call for different decisions. However, most people still insist on thinking about New Year’s resolutions in an all-or-nothing kind of way. We believe that resolutions, once fulfilled, will enable us to sidestep choices between two good things, when all they are really capable of is helping us to manage them.
That’s why New Year’s resolutions often fall flat. It’s easy to get trapped in the Stanford feast-or-famine mentality. Instead of tackling our resolutions in a slow and steady, strategic way, we don full battle attire and swing into action, sending out twenty emails we’ve meant to write for the past month, going to the gym religiously and booking ourselves solid with advisor meetings. We exhaust ourselves during one or two unsustainable weeks, only to find ourselves too burnt out to keep up with any one of our resolutions for the rest of the year.
Not every change can be realized in a day. But most tasks, no matter how daunting, can be accomplished long-term. The problem is that most of us view New Year’s resolutions as quick-fix solutions to larger issues; thus, we employ a flawed approach to following through on them.
Every day, we’re forced to make choices about what’s important. What we choose is always motivated by something, but it’s where that motivation comes from that truly matters when making those decisions. Most often, you’re choosing between two desirable things. We’ve all been there: you wake up early with the intention to go running, but all your body wants in that moment is more sleep. Do you press snooze? If you really do need the sleep, then sleep! But if you’re just avoiding the day, get up. The lines are blurry and hard to distinguish.
My procrastination method of choice is avoiding what really needs to get done by fooling myself into something else that seems productive at first blush. (For example, deleting emails from my inbox appeals to me much more than reading for class). What matters isn’t really whether or not you put something off to tomorrow — after all, we are only capable of so much in a day without going crazy — but whether that choice is a deliberate one, motivated by what’s really good for you.
We want it all. And we can have it all. Just not overnight. Start slowly and give yourself time to adjust to new habits. There was a reason why I couldn’t just will myself to run that monthly mile back in middle school: I didn’t practice. But with enough repetition, anyone can run a marathon!
In that case, though, I think I’ll make the deliberate choice not to.
Want to know Leslie’s resolution for the New Year? Email her at labrian “at” stanford “dot” edu.