The road to failure is paved with good intentions. For many, that road starts in January. Most of us like to begin the year by setting goals, but 64 per cent quit by February, according to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, one of many saying much of the same.
Dr Saliha Afridi, a psychologist and founder of LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, explains the problem: “It is natural, even instinctual to want to review and reset. But people will submit to their old habits because they don’t have a clear plan.”
Just because most resolutions end in failure, however, doesn’t mean you should give up. Rather, work on the way in which you set your intentions. “It’s not that resolutions are a bad idea; it’s just that people rely too much on willpower versus actually evaluating the underlying reasons they are making certain choices,” Afridi says.
So instead of focusing on superficial changes this year, such as intense workouts or fad diets, I decided that perhaps inner transformation — by way of self-help books — is the way to real, long-lasting results for me. Here are some tried-and-tested hacks.
Have more energy: stay open
With three young children and a hectic schedule, I often feel tired. The New York Times best-selling author Michael Singer believes the solution to unlimited energy isn’t sleep, food or exercise, but the practice of staying open.
In The Untethered Soul (2007), Singer describes the heart as an energy centre. If you feel threatened or in pain in any way, you will close your heart and therefore become more drained. “The only reason you don’t feel energy all the time is because you block it. You block it by closing your heart, by closing your mind. Closing is a habit, and just like any other habit, it can be broken,” Singer writes.
I think about this after I have been trying to get through to a friend abroad who hasn’t been answering my messages or calls. The feeling creates tightness in my chest and I immediately go on the defensive, vowing to cut her out of my life. Following Singer’s advice, I relax and keep my heart open. I try her again. She sends me a message this time, apologising and tells me she has been travelling in between jobs. I feel lighter.
Now, how to “stay open” when my dog starts barking at 5am?
Become less irritable: be present
Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher who counts Oprah among his fans, believes there is only one moment that counts and it is this one.
“Give up waiting as a state of mind,” he writes in The Power of Now (1997). “When you catch yourself slipping into waiting … snap out of it. Come into the present moment. Just be, and enjoy being. If you are present, there is never any need for you to wait for anything.”
I remind myself of this when a sales assistant disappears into the back of a store for 25 minutes. I try to stay calm. “Be present, time doesn’t exist.” I repeat it like a mantra. But the clock tells me otherwise: I am late for the school pickup. When they return with the wrong item, I can’t help but lose it.
It’s not that Tolle isn’t on to something; it’s just that he doesn’t have young children. Later that night, I am doing the bedtime routine, running late for dinner. The mantra again. I decide being present for my children is more important than being punctual. I still lose it, but a little bit less this time.
Lose weight: practise self-care
Having overindulged over the festive period, I vowed to cut out carbs and sugar in January. But renowned physician and author Dr Habib Sadeghi argues weight has nothing to do with food or genetics, and everything to do with inner healing.
“I say 90 per cent of the success comes from what you put in your heart and mind, and that diet and exercise only count for 10 per cent,” he writes in Within (2013). “When you think, act and speak from love, your body and life circumstances will begin to realign immediately.”
Sadeghi’s two-month spiritual weight-loss programme includes affirmations and self-reflection exercises. Each day comes with one nutritional suggestion. “There are no calories to count, foods to weigh or menus to follow.”
Now that’s a plan I can get on board with. Day one is simply 15 minutes of meditation and 30 minutes of movement, with advice to celebrate yourself by eating anything you want. Surprisingly, because I can, I don’t.
Form new habits: forget goals
My resolution to write a novel has been unsuccessful for several years. Will this year be different? I set myself an unrealistic daily word count. But writer and motivational speaker James Clear offers a different kind of framework to build good habits and break bad ones.
Clear believes in making tiny changes to your environment, rather than relying solely on willpower. He also advocates systems over goals. “A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems,” he writes in Atomic Habits (2018). The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game.”
I wonder if I can work on my writing system by improving my craft and regularly sharing my work for feedback. I also reduce my daily word count target. This releases the pressure of a one-time objective and forces me to slow down and take smaller steps in my writing journey. One week down, only 51 more to go.