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It’s actually fine to have a New Year’s resolution
Let your “strong wants” lead the way.
There’s a lot of content online about why New Year’s resolutions are pointless, misguided, even harmful. People retaliate against the idea that we must change anything about ourselves, become new, edge closer to better—especially if we focus on our bodies. Some seem to suggest that if a person wants to make a change, it’s because they think they have to, like they’ve been brainwashed by diet culture, biohacking culture, or self-improvement culture and must be talked out of the madness.
The idea that body-specific resolutions are bad, or necessarily a byproduct of diet or other culture’s machinations, can make people feel conflicted if they are entertaining a change. I don’t think that’s helpful, either—not every change will necessarily be about dangerous restriction, fad dieting, or self-punishing exercise. So how do we think about change without buying into the worst of what the diet/biohacking/self-improvement cultures want to sell us?
Exercise-related resolutions are most common, so I’m focusing on that.
First, we’ve got to think about “wants.”
What’s your “weak want” and your “strong want”?
I’ve written before that following a certain prescribed diet doesn’t work for me, and I think time-bound (“4-Week Detox!”), macronutrient-eliminating (Atkins), and “meal replacement” (Shakeology, some plans’ gross bars) diets are futile money grabs at best and harmful at worst. I don’t think they work for long-term weight loss—though the modern equation of “diets don’t work” with “weight loss is impossible” is a topic for another essay—and I doubt they help most people understand what habits will fit into their lives long-term without utter misery. I think resolutions that depend upon these drastic quick fixes are pointless, misguided, even harmful, but I don’t think the inclination to rethink how you eat, move, or do anything else means you’ve been duped or don’t love yourself.
When my binge eating disorder was at its worst, I eventually tried to change things about myself because I believed there were things about myself that needed to change. That wasn’t self-loathing, it was optimism that I could get better. The changes I wanted to make weren’t things like, “Get smaller because smaller people are better people,” or, “Work out because visible abs will improve my life.” They were things like, “Figure out why I eat to the point of physical pain because I’d rather feel that than emotions,” and, “Understand my body as something besides a canvas upon which other people dash their most vivid opinions.”
Ultimately, I wanted to be a person who felt calmer inside. That’s why people make resolutions—we have someone we want to be. We say we want to be someone who meditates, or gets our steps in, or who eats the “right” things. The tricky thing with most resolutions, I think, is that we make them based on what we want to want.* Let’s break this down.
Your resolution (what you want to want, because it’s a “good” thing to be this kind of person): “I will meditate every day before breakfast.”
What you actually want: To sleep in, probably. This is the “weak want.”
Why it might not stick: Because your desire to sleep in is more real (it’s what you want now) than the behavior you don’t do yet.
The “want” that could make it stick (this is the “strong want,” the reason you’re making the resolution): You want to be less emotionally reactive, to learn to be in the moment, to slow down.
The weak want (the “fuck it” want) is going to kick your resolution’s ass if you haven’t identified your strong want. The strong want is what you really want, even if you’re unaware of it; you picked this resolution because something about it spoke to you.
So: Do you want to go to the gym because “fit” and “healthy” people go to the gym, or do you want to be able to pick up things in your home, feel capable in everyday movements, and have more stamina for the protracted carnival of chaos that is this life? Do you want to “eat better” because pizza is “bad” and kale is “good”? Or do you want to understand your body’s hunger cues, or learn to cook, or discover what foods feel like they’re nourishing you (which can include pizza and kale if you want)?
This is where you begin—what do you actually want in the long-term beyond the immediate doing of the resolution? That’s a big ask. Once you answer it, though, you get to do small things.
Think big and strong, start small and gentle.
I walked into a Planet Fitness once with no “six-week shred” plan, just the overarching strong want of something like, “Learn how to make my body and brain functional and powerful again.”
Notice the “learn” there. The resolution isn’t just “get good at the gym,” I had to learn. And how else do you learn but starting small?
You can walk twice a week for 20 minutes. You can watch YouTube tutorials, make a beeline straight for those areas of the gym, do your little sets, and leave in 30 minutes. Start small. Listen, I’m very “go hard or go home”—I understand wanting to slam like a bullet train into The New Routine That Will Solve All The Problems. But the all-in can land you on your ass if you don’t start small and gentle, because:
It’s going to suck until it doesn’t.
As someone who has spent years in googly-eyed shock that I actually like working out now after decades of dreading it like an IUD insertion, what continues to irritate me is gyms, trainers, and influencers telling us that getting started with exercise (or changing up how you eat) is easy, effortless, and fun.
Sure, you might find a workout that’s chill, super low-impact, and in a fantastic, party-like group setting. That’s great. Getting started can be easy, effortless, and fun! But I think it’s best to assume it will be challenging and then be surprised.
This does not mean that exercise has to be punishing, torturous, and miserable. Hardly. I know we love to choose sides here on the internet playground, but there’s a golden mean—getting started at exercise, or anything, can be more difficult than “afternoon at the spa” and easier than “electric shocks during a Tough Mudder race.”
Doing new things sucks! Exercise is no exception. It can involve literally damaging muscle tissue and building it back up. Your body is breathing heavier than it’s used to. It’s sitting on an indoor bicycle seat that’s torturing each ass cheek (trust me, a Spinning instructor: you’ll get used to it after two classes. Or, your seat is probably too high. Speak to me after class). It has to go to a new place, at a new time, with scary new people. Sucks!
The “easy, effortless, and fun” crowd might be selling you a workout plan. I’m selling you nothing, so: You might feel slow, “out of shape,” embarrassed, weak, despondent, sweaty, sore, enraged, exhausted, and clueless. I did. Then, it’ll be like emerging from a marrow-chilling plunge pool—in which every fiber and sinew bellows at the cold, convinced it will never cease—into the narcotic, thawing blanket of natural air. Miraculously, you’ll feel better. You’ll get over it. If there’s one of those long German words for the specific relief of feeling sorry for yourself and then suddenly, ever so slightly impressed with yourself, you’ll feel that.
If you care to tinker with them, your strength, stamina, VO2 max, heart rate recovery time, muscle mass, etc., will not change if your body never encounters things that suck a little. Your body isn’t going to adapt to something it can already do. The cool thing is, you get to teach it something. During that process, here’s what else I can almost guarantee:
It’s going to be slow and you’re not going to be sure it’s working.
Let me contradict myself right off the bat, actually, with “newbie gains” in strength training: People with not much weightlifting experience will typically gain muscle mass very quickly when they start. Did you see Oprah when Adele told her she could deadlift 160-170 pounds? That is awesome, and that’s not something that has to take years. Assuming that’s close to her body weight, that’s a little more than a “novice” deadlift. She’s said she was working out a lot—it probably took her a couple months. It’s an amazing thing, and it could happen to you.
It could also be an incredibly slow process. This is when you return to the strong want, because the scale (I advise that you totally ignore it), or the look in the mirror, or the clothes’ fit might be the last things to change, and just being lighter or smaller for the sake of it isn’t what you want anyway. You want to have more stamina, so note how you felt or how long you went on your walks in the first week of the month and then the last—I bet it was a little easier or longer. You want to be able to pick things up without hurting your back, so take a video of yourself doing a deadlift that first week and again that last week, after you’ve been watching videos or working with a coach. I bet your form improved or you lifted more. You want to see if what you eat affects your energy levels, so try adding some protein to your breakfast bagel. I bet you felt more satisfied for longer.
Give the small and gentle things a chance to work before you bail because the big and strong things didn’t happen immediately. They will come later. “Make it small, make it gentle, and make it suck,” is your mantra for two or three months.
Which resolutions, changes, or habits did you fail at or break?
Here’s a sampling of some of the goals I’ve completely failed at or let fizzle out:
Learning Spanish (tried DuoLingo but meh…)
Meditating each day (I used it as an example for a reason)
Going to bed without glowering at my phone for a while
Writing down the books, TV shows, and movies I consume so I remember them
Cultivating various hobbies; I’ve purchased supplies for paper quilling, fashion illustration, canvas and wood painting, etc. Someday. Someday.
Drinking water first thing in the morning. Can’t do it. Coffee first.
Eliminating coffee. Nope. Fuck it.
So why did the above fizzle out when the movement/eating changes stuck? The movement/eating changes were my strong wants. My relationship to food and my body was the thing I most wanted to fix.
If you want to make any kind of change—and it bears repeating that this doesn’t mean you don’t love and appreciate yourself now, or think you have to change to satisfy some external, malevolent force—maybe think about the changes you’ve tried to make, why they haven’t stuck (there’s a valid reason), and what your strongest want is right now. Maybe identifying that want is the work itself in 2022.
I wish you a happy new year of small and gentle suckiness.
*Thank you, Ryan, for the conversation around this.