All in all, 2018 has been a good year – personally, professionally, healthwise, and otherwise. I’m too empathetic to say, “2018 has been a terrific year!” because it’s been awful to too many people, and politically, it’s been an absolute Dumpster fire. But I have absolutely nothing to complain about, and everything to be thankful for, on a direct and personal level.
Although I shoved most of my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions aside without a backwards glance, I knocked my travel goals out of the park. My husband, son, and I got to hang out with my cousin and his wife in Berlin; celebrated our (mostly) annual family reunion in France – with 42 of us in attendance!; and then visited Rome with my husband and son. My son and I tried spaghetti al nero di seppia, one of JoJo’s (of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures) favorite dishes. W and I had watched almost all seasons of the anime series together, so when we found a restaurant near the Spanish Steps that served this, we had to try it. To our immense relief, it was actually quite tasty! We laughed at each other’s blackened teeth. It was nice to be able to do this, together, before he transferred to a university five hours away, and moved into his own apartment near his sister and her husband.
Being an “empty nester” has its ups and downs. I miss both kids, but at the same time, I’m really happy that they both seem to be thriving. W has done well at his new university, and K and her husband are in the late stages of adopting a child – the “hurry up and wait” stage, where they have done all they can do, and now wait to be given the final go-ahead to bring him home. It’s nice, too, to have my husband all to myself. I was able to go back to Hawaii, after more than 30 years, play tourist with my him, briefly, and have a few adventures on my own while he worked. I got to snorkel with sea turtles and meet online friends face to face. I had surgery on my cervical spine in January, went back to work – the Bionic Woman – just three days later, and in the same year was able to try out SCUBA diving for the first time ever. That fueled my choice for “Word of the Year” – Limitless – and made me want to have more fun adventures in 2019. Already, it’s off to a fun start, as K and M gave us tickets to see The Book of Mormon in January.
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
— W. H. Murray in The Scottish Himalaya Expedition, 1951
I have committed.
Unlike in recent years past, though, I’m not going to enumerate the goals here. I will record them, offline, and refer back to them often – to keep them front and center, mentally. But given my dismal track record these past few years, the ease with which I’ve let both motivation and commitment slip away, my quickness to embrace distractions and any projects but the ones I profess to think important to me, personally, I’m not going to share them here. Not now. Not tonight.
This strategy worked for me when I decided to quit smoking. I started the day I realized that no one was nagging me to quit, anymore. I had no one to rebel against but myself. That kind of took all the fun out of it, frankly. I didn’t want to have to explain or make excuses, though, if I failed, as I had, twice before. I kept the act of quitting a secret, even from my husband, our children, and my father-in-law – who lived with us at the time. I simply didn’t make a big production out of it. If I failed, I hoped no one would notice – and if they did, I trusted they’d keep it to themselves. I made no public declaration of intent. I quit at 2:00 PM on a work day, specifically to avoid that “clean plate, clean slate” mentality. If I had a cigarette, the day wasn’t ruined – I did not have to wait until the next day to try again. The hardest part, I remember, was driving home from the office that first day and not lighting up out of habit. It amused me to keep this a secret, to see if anyone would notice. Two weeks in, at Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law offered to get me an ashtray as I stepped out onto their patio. I smiled and shook my head. “No need. I don’t smoke. Just going for a quick walk.”
“WHAT?” The whole family was in shock. Secret goals are surprisingly effective, no matter what’s been said about sharing goals in public and being accountable.
Most successful weight loss resolutions don’t end in “I want to lose weight,” or even “I want to lose 20 pounds.”
If we work out SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Aspirational, Realistic, and Time-Bound) and specific strategies for achieving them, and don’t talk about them much, we are often successful. This is along the same lines of what’s known as “Implementation Intention.” Rather than setting a “Goal Intention,” such as “I will not get frightened by spiders,” it’s more effective to say, “If I see a spider, I will stay calm and relaxed.”
I like to phrase it a bit differently: “When I see a spider, I will take a deep, cleansing breath and smile without screaming. I will let it live.” But you get the idea. Their “if” is my “when.” Otherwise, I may go out of my way to avoid the first condition and never achieve the result. “When” is acceptance of the inevitable.
Still, it seems that when I talk about weight loss or fitness goals, friends are helpful. They’re kind. They’re not so good at pushing accountability, though. They tell me I don’t need to lose any more weight. They notice when I do, and they compliment me, which is lovely but somehow ends up being counter-productive. My subconscious smiles. It grows complacent and content. It stops working, convinced that it’s worked hard enough and deserves some cake now, thank you very much. I wondered what was going on, why this strategy of general, public goal sharing wasn’t working for me, anymore. And then I discovered something: I’m not alone in this, and there is a very good reason for it.
When other people take notice of a person’s identity-related intentions (such as to be thinner, to be a better mother, to be a more successful musician, to be a more skilled crafter – whatever), performance of the intended behaviors needed to achieve the goal is compromised. According to studies done in the early 2000s, this is only observed in people who are actually committed to the goal. The positive social feedback, the “Likes,” the encouraging comments and social support, all generate a premature sense of having achieved the result. (Gollwitzer et. al (2009). When Intentions Go Public. Psychological Science, 20(5), 612-618.)
Why? Doesn’t this seem counterintuitive? According to Marwa Azab Ph.D., “When we publicize our goal intentions, and others acknowledge the awesomeness of such ‘potential’ changes, we get our dopamine reward all at once.” Dopamine is the “feel-good” chemical that produces a feeling of pleasurable reward, and causes us to seek out more of whatever released it in the brain. “The more others admire our goals,” writes Azab, “the more dopamine rush we get, and the less likely we are to execute the future necessary actions to implement them. …[P]ublicizing our intention to succeed gives us a ‘premature sense of completeness,’ [signaling] the brain to move on. In other words, If the brain believes that you have reached your goal, it might inhibit the specific brain circuits related to further pursuing this goal.” (Why Sharing Your Goals Makes Them Less Achievable?)
So, I have not yet begun to fight, let alone achieved my rewards. I’ll tell you about them later, once I have reached the various finish lines.