I was in the car when I heard someone on NPR say that the best thing any single person could do to help the environment was to stop eating meat. So that New Year’s Day, I resolved to become a vegetarian for the coming year.
Twelve months later, I had kept my resolution and was looking forward to the burger I was going to eat on New Year’s Day to celebrate the end of my year of vegetarianism.
Except, when I woke up that morning, I suddenly and unexpectedly thought, I don’t ever want to eat meat again.
It was weird. I hadn’t expected my one-year resolution to become a lifelong habit, but once I’d gotten used to not eating meat, the thought of going back to it was kind of revolting.
So I concluded that making resolutions was an incredibly effective way to improve myself. Cool! What next? There’s always room for improvement . . .
My son suggested that I make a resolution to stop snacking in the late afternoons, since I often complained that I wasn’t hungry for dinner. Easy-peasy. Resolution number two, here I come.
I kept that resolution for maybe 10 days. And I cheated a lot in those 10 days.
Same deal with my resolution the following year to give up dessert. That one didn’t even last a week.
Not buying new clothes, though? I’m proud to say I made it a full year, during which I learned to shop my own closet and frequent thrift stores. When the 12 months were up, I went back to clothes shopping—I’d missed it too much—but I try not to buy more than I need, and I’d still rather go to a thrift store than a department store.
Anyway, sifting through what I’ve learned from both my successes and failures, I’ve come up with a list of advice for anyone who, like me, wants to use her New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement.
1) Pick something that nudges you further in a direction you’re already moving. I may not have been a vegetarian before my New Year’s resolution, but I wasn’t a huge meat eater, either. And I was already an animal lover—it had always bothered me that I could be petting a cute mammal one minute and cutting into one a minute later. So giving up animal flesh felt right.
2) Don’t pick something that’s going to feel like torture, even if you think it will make you a healthier or better person. Having a slice of pizza instead of a steak isn’t a sacrifice for me. But giving up desserts when there’s nothing I love more than a cup of coffee and a slice of cake? That’s painful and unsustainable.
3) It really helps to have a noble motive. We’re not as selfish as you’d think, and knowing you’re doing something to help the environment or the less privileged may keep you on the path when simple vanity wouldn’t.
4) On the other hand, reaping some immediate benefits can really inspire you. I was able to establish an exercise habit because I discovered that I feel a lot better for the rest of the day once I’ve made myself sweat. I’ve had less luck with resolutions that rely on more delayed gratifications (like long-term weight loss).
5) If you’re constantly finding reasons to cheat on a resolution you’ve already made, it’s probably not the right one for you. Drop it and try a different one. There’s nothing inherently meaningful about New Year’s Day—you can start a new habit any day of the year. (My non-shopping resolution went from August to August.)
6) If you’ve held to your resolution for an entire year without too much difficulty, think seriously about making a longer commitment to it. That first year may well be the beginning of a lifelong change. But don’t make the resolution thinking you’re committed for life. It makes any sacrifice or commitment seem overwhelming (“I can never eat a hamburger again?”), and that increases the odds you’ll give up. Assume your life change is only for the short-term, and then extend it if you want.
Finally, some suggestions: if you’re a social person, think about volunteering more. If you feel guilty about having too many material possessions, either resolve to stop buying things or declutter your house by donating anything you don’t need. And if, like me, you’re an animal lover, foster a puppy and/or try going vegetarian. Trust me, cutting out meat makes ordering at restaurants a lot easier. And I hear it’s good for the environment …