No matter how you choose to express it, New Year’s Resolutions are a thing. Sometimes it’s a goal, like to lose weight or finish a task. Other times people choose a word. I’m partial to that one, in past years I chose Creativity, Ignite, and Harmony as my words. I’ve known people to try and break a bad habit, like cutting sugar, television or cigarettes. Sometimes they want to start a new habit, like reading 10 new books or journaling every day. No matter how we choose to express our New Year’s Resolution the process of choosing it is both a magical act and a devotional process: it changes your consciousness as well as being an ongoing practice, at least if you’re to succeed. And that’s the crux of it. Success is not guaranteed, and come the end of January and beginning of February the inevitable memes about failure to go to the gym and the seductive power of mocha caramel lattes will abound.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
No really. Our ideas about how to succeed at tasks are old and outdated. They’re not even ancient, mostly they date back to the Victorian era and the beginnings of psychological research. Like most sciences, psychology has come a long way. Turns out you can study willpower and build it like a muscle. Humans inherently want to do creative things, like finish that afghan or learn a new skill. But we do a lot of things to shoot ourselves in the metaphorical foot. Any magical practice can help you build willpower and motivation, but it’s awfully nice to actually understand how the whole thing works. First of all:
We have limited willpower.
I say that, and it seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many of us think that if we just try hard enough we can power through. No one expects to run a marathon without training and no one thinks you’re gonna be able to make muscle music like Terry Crews without a lot of effort and training. But we do think that if we just push ourselves we can make our minds do amazing things. We can, but starting out by doing the mental equivalent of deadlifting 300lbs isn’t gonna work. So, here’s the stats: We recharge our willpower by sleeping. If you’re not getting good sleep you’re probably not recharging your willpower properly. We use it throughout the day so doing things in the morning can be easier than in the evening. I like to think of it like getting coins in a video game. Once your willpower coins are spent you’re gonna have a much harder time convincing yourself to break old habits or make new ones.
Interestingly willpower is created in a number of sections of the brain, not just one including the anterior cingulate cortex, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. This has a whole lot of implications, because each of these sections of the brain does more than one thing. If you’re busy pretending to like your relatives your prefrontal cortex is gonna be too busy processing that to remember not to eat all the leftover christmas cookies. If you’re having all the feels your amygdala is gonna be too overloaded to cope with getting you to the gym. You can build up your willpower and get more successful at achieving goals. I’ve written about building willpower in depth here, but here’s the quick and dirty notes:
Limit your choices. Each choice you make in a day uses just a little bit of willpower. Keep things simple in your life for a while. Maybe just go to the same couple of restaurants rather than spending a lot of time choosing. Pick out a bunch of outfits on the weekend so that you know what you’re going to wear. Plan out things a little more for a while so that you have the mental energy to spend on delving into your resolution.
Be reasonable in your goals. The ancient Greek Stoics were a big proponent of wise goal setting. Maybe it’s not reasonable to get to the gym every day. What is your schedule? How much time do you actually have? Set your goal wisely, and remember it’s far better to do a small amount of a task more frequently for habit setting and learning. Spending 15 minutes a day doing a little yoga and some pushups is better than spending 3 hours at the gym on Saturdays. However, if that’s all the time you have, do it! Even better, try and find that small amount of time each day to tie in. Small increments can build up to bigger things.
Be ready to fail and try again. Assume you’re going to fail, and that most likely failure is gonna trigger a shame response. Our society is absolutely full of shame. This is something I’ve been learning a lot about recently, and it’s no fun. Shame makes us avoidant, and often causes us to fail in even bigger ways because we avoid the thing we failed at. It creates downward spirals of feeling bad and not succeeding. It’s hard to combat. The best tactic I’ve found is to just be really honest and name it. Like spirits from the Book of Solomon, knowing the name gives you power over it. Sit with the bad feeling of failure and then let it fade. Keep trying. I like to say the only failure is to not try.
Seriously consider cutting way back on sugar. As pagans we talk about the importance of the bodily. We deride Decartes’ mind body divide and talk about the immanence of deity. We talk a good game of the sacred being inherent in physical form, but we don’t always want to remember that mind body spirit connection when it comes to our daily habits. However I have seen time and time again how much easier it is for people to succeed with their goals when they cut sugar out of their lives. Sugar is addictive, it damages your liver, it causes all kinds of cascades in your brain. Because sugar is a legal drug we act like it’s fine. Don’t get me wrong. I had a big bowl of ice cream last night. It was delicious. However, I know that it’s going to mess with me and I accept that. I know that if I really want to get some serious work done the first thing I need to do is cut back on sugar. Do your brain and your body a favor and reduce the sugar in your diet. In the case of having a new years resolution, I’d even suggest spending the month of January cutting back on sugar and then starting your resolution in February.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and if you want a booklist, check out the post I mentioned earlier. These are the things that I’ve found to help the most for myself and my local community.
May your resolution magic be strong and successful, and may your willpower be like Gandalf in the Mines of Moria when he confronts the Balrog.
Thank you to all my readers and patreons. My own goals center around delving into my writing and art, continuing to create and learn. I have so much I want to share with all of you from my research. Things like multidimensional physics and magic, chaos and optionality and antifragility. I continue to study and learn about the Swan Maidens, Baltic religion, Elves and Land Spirits. Most of all, I continue my ongoing challenge to self and community: how do we, as modern humans, live more sustainably on this land we find ourselves on? This is my ongoing goal, and it’s taken me strange places over the years. I’ve learned how social justice is spiritual and environmental justice. I’ve built community, only to have it fail, and then built new community again. I’ve taught and learned and struggled with my own mental and physical health. I’ve grown food, mended clothes, and read a ton of books. Thank you for joining me on that ongoing journey. Blessed be.