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I had another photograph here that I’d taken of a cutie-pie colouring in, but it was too small. So here is a metaphor instead.

New year’s resolutions are something of a voyeuristic guilty pleasure for me. I can’t remember the last time I made any, but I like to chuckle through some of the lists family and friends post of their various social media profiles around the end of December/beginning of January each year.

I don’t chuckle in a judgmental way, mind you. Most of the time the resolutions are things  would want to change/improve, if I were resolving to do anything at all.

This year, I want to exercise more/eat healthy foods more often/earn more/get better grades/travel more…

But because I know how inherently lazy and bad at forming new habits I am, I often just watch and don’t participate because I prefer not to go through the mid-year slump of thinking of all the resolutions I made that fell by the wayside.

You would think that, from what I’ve just written, I am completely lacking in ambition and have no goals. But I actually have a mountain of goals and ambitions and have already achieved a major one: becoming a doctor. It’s just that I spend a lot of time alone, and so knowing certain things about myself informs a huge chunk of what I set out for myself in terms of medium-term aspirations.

Getting back to new years resolutions, something that I think makes them so difficult to accomplish is the fact that 99% of the time, they are very externally focused*. External not so much in the sense of how progress can be evaluated–although that’s definitely a factor–but more in terms of how they are set. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a nicer body to look at, per se. But most of us don’t see our bodies all twenty-four hours of the day, and so the consequences of poor decisions that we make that might affect those bodies aren’t always staring us the face. If we set the goal externally, we need an external stimulus to keep us on track. This is why people often comment on weight loss goals while looking through photographs or staring at themselves in the mirror. It’s like they needed to be reminded that they weren’t at their ideal weight…so maybe they don’t follow through with their diets and exercise routines because they need to be reminded every time a relevant dilemma pops up (among other, obviously more complicated factors). The thought process becomes:

Mmmm…takeout with my childhood best friend from out of town sounds like a great idea. Sure, I could eat healthier at home, but she’s only going to be here a few days and I really want to show her a great time!

The health goals don’t become secondary, they become non-existent! This is because a new external stimulus (special occasion!) crops up and overshadows the initial stimulus (I don’t look good!) that forced the person to set the resolution in the first place.

I hope that example works, because I’m really not writing about weight loss at all. Instead, I’m writing about the drive to ‘want nice things’ but then be sabotaged by ourselves along the way because it’s easy to forget the nice things we’re working towards when other nice things sneak up on and distract us. Or, more specifically, the desire for external nice things can often be displaced by the distraction of other external nice things.

I didn’t realise this until I noticed a completely different trend in my own life a short while ago. I was going through my routine of trying to dissect who I am as a person (yes, I’m the life of every party) when I realised that I’d never defined my roles for myself. I was nearing the end of medical school, and made a comment to some friends of mine during a lull in our music-making that I was feeling a little lost at sea. I was proud that I was nearing the end of a long, arduous tertiary road but disappointed to find that a huge part of my identity had been tied up in the fact that I would be becoming a doctor.

“I don’t really have a plan after this,” I told them. “I feel like knowing I would be in school made me feel like I had a plan, but now I’m going to start working and I realise that I used school as an excuse for all the things I never did and never prioritised.”

I knew intellectually that I was more than a medical student; I was a daughter, sister, grandchild, friend, collaborator, musician, writer, artist. But practically speaking? A disproportionate amount of my time was dedicated solely to the medical student part, with some bones being thrown at being a creative person and being friend. There were things that I valued, truly valued, that I wasn’t prioritising because I was hiding behind what the world told me my “role” was: I was in University getting an expensive education, therefore the most important role had to be student. But nobody was forcing me to accept this. Looking objectively at what my priorities are and then aligning that to what I thought my roles should be, I realised I wasn’t allocating my time in a way that made sense. Sure, studying demanded more time and energy than calling my grandmother. There was nothing wrong with this. But my grandmother never needed a five hour a day phone call routine. Half an hour would have suited her just fine. Instead, I would call her once a fortnight and then rush through the conversation because she had so much to tell me and I had a pile of books waiting. Then I would feel really crappy knowing that I wasn’t being the best granddaughter I could be to the best grandmother in the world, leading me to a shameful avoidance of calling her again until I would be eaten by guilt and what-ifs so I’d make sure I heard her voice again…only to repeat the cycle.

(As a side-note, my grandmother needs at least half an hour a phone call both because she’s old and repeats herself often and because she tells really elaborate stories (the old gossip!). But if I call her more regularly, she has less to repeat and less time to accumulate juicy tales. Which means I spend less time on the phone without making her feel any less loved. It’s a win-win.)

Using this internal stimulus (love and appreciation of my grandmother) to fuel a change (biweekly phone calls) has been a game changer. I know my priorities, assign my roles accordingly, and then distribute my time to match. The most important things in my life may not necessarily take the most time, but this way they are never neglected and because they are not externally motivated, I’m less likely to be thrown off by external distractions. If I miss a phone call to my grandmother because I’m on call that evening, I can just call her a little later without there being any guilt or disappointment about going off track. Compare this to a diet, where if you eat the cake, you’ve eaten the cake and can’t simply un-eat the cake. (I know, I know. I’m clearly such an eloquent writer.)

This has translated to me throwing the energy most people throw into new year’s resolutions for into something more nuanced and sustainable. Instead of wanting more “nice things”, I just try to make the different spheres of life function much nicer. Of course, you can do both. But I find that the people who manage to do both often apply the principle of an internal stimulus even to things that look like external goals. So instead of going on a diet, someone might focus on health and wellness, thus adopting behaviours that contribute to those priorities and, as a happy byproduct, losing some weight in the process. And since they won’t be grouchy and hungry, they are more available to be nicer to the people they care about, nicer to the environment, and nicer to themselves.**


*Also note that 99% of stats are made up; 99.8% if they are on the internet.

**I don’t know what’s with the extended dieting metaphor! I don’t even believe in diets, nor do I endorse the restrictive and unhealthy attitudes toward food that most of them encourage. But it’s low-hanging fruit and I just remembered that I need to call one of my brothers so I won’t be editing it out. See! Application!


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