Tuesday, December 1, 2009

One Resolution You Should Make...And Might Actually Keep

One of my clients, "Adam Michaels," has, for years, fought to be more responsible: set goals, not procrastinate, see tasks through to completion. He's had years of therapy, read a libraryful of self-help books, and had a few sessions with me, a career and life coach. Nothing has worked.

So today, I asked Adam, "Moving forward, do you think it's wiser to keep trying to become more responsible or to accept that this is who you are, just as I must accept that I will never be a professional artist." He cried...and voted for self-acceptance.

If he keeps to that decision, that may ensure he'll never accomplish what he'd hope to accomplish, professionally and personally. But continuing to try to morph himself into something he's not won't likely help him accomplish more. It will mainly just torture him, just as forcing me to continually take art classes would torture me without increasing my chances of becoming a professional artist.

Remember the story of the scorpion that asked a frog to
carry him across the river. The frog is afraid of being stung but the scorpion reassures him that if it stung the frog, both of them would drown. The frog then agrees. Yet in mid-river, the scorpion stings him, dooming the two of them. When asked why, the scorpion explains, "I'm a scorpion; it's my nature."

So as we enter 2010, Adam's story may be a useful reminder that New Year's resolutions are generally a waste of time. We haul out the same old vows, the triumph of hope over experience, that this time will be different: We will stay on our diet. We will find a better job. We will be nicer to our spouse. We will stop using our treadmill as a clothes rack. And by January 10, nearly all of us will slink back from our resolutions, reminded yet again of our formidable resistance to change.

Sure, if you have a new, achievable goal, something that doesn't require a personality transplant, it may help to make it a New Year's resolution. Doing so can keep that goal top-of-mind. But if you have a musty old collection of never-kept resolutions, you might, this year, keep them in the closet and instead, make just one new one: "I will accept myself, flaws and all."


Anonymous said...

So depressing, so true.

Anonymous said...

I thought Marty's resolution was that he was going to work on the play : )

Marty Nemko said...


He is working (like a dog) on the play but I have a monthly column I have to write for the Intelligencer (a Mensa publication) and so I posted it here.

Thanks for the jibe!!

Anonymous said...

The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Once you unconditionally accept yourself, you are then better positioned to make behavioral changes.

Dr. Michael R. Edelstein

Anonymous said...

I agree with Dr. Edelstein. At least I've found it to be the case in my own life. After trying for many years to overcome my shyness and instill discipline I essentially gave up and decided to accept that I'm shy and flaky. Somewhat incredibly, the effect that it had was that I became tremendously less shy and more disciplined (though not overnight, of course). I'd still describe myself as a little tentative, but worlds, worlds, worlds away from the mouse I used to be. The discipline hasn't seen as marked an improvement, at least now across the board, but I'm now content to slowly keep plugging away at the objectives I've set for myself even if I do occasionally stray.

I think I can remember hearing this approach described as "radical self-honesty." In retrospect, I can see quite clearly see that I was deluding myself (and others) about my qualities. Maybe this is why owning up to my shortcomings had the effect it did on me.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last two comments, in fact, Marty you might want to talk to procrastination expert Tim Pychyl from Procrastination.ca and also blogger for Psychology Today.

It's unrealistic to expect to change procrastination over a short period of time. It may take years and it's a battle one must fight everyday. But it's definitely worth the effort.

Also, John Perry (from the radio show Philosophy Talk on KALW) is a self-acknowledged procrastinator who takes on a humorous approach to his trait (see structuredprocrastination.com). On his website he shares his strategies to deal with procrastination and literally make it work for him.

So, don't get discouraged about your client. There's more about procrastination than meets the eye.

All the best,


PS: You and your wife should make a radio show together. I enjoyed listening to both of you!

broken by blindness said...

I so enjoy your articles and insights. I am somewhat distraught, however, by "Adam's" situation. Please tell me that you do not mean to say that Adam will never learn how to be responsible, efficient, mitigate his procrastination tendencies or at least find the bases for them, or basically he will never move beyond this "stuck" point; b/c after all, he is a "scorpion."

Perhaps Adam has not found something to light him on fire.

And people can learn to change behaviors; however, it takes a lot of commitment and perseverance. Many times when I run at the track, I'm not as thrilled about it as I would be by other things. I force myself--1 quarter mile at a time. Things in motion tend to stay in motion--at least until a point.

Once we learn to accept and embrace the process of overcoming inertia--that is, getting in motion even if you don't feel like and keep moving, it is amazing how you can see something through. I start w/ this. "I can do anything for thirty minutes." Funny how I finished my set goal at the track, a number of times prior to the 30 minute mark. I started out purposing no less than two miles nonstop--short of a heart attack or stroke. LOL. I might slow down a bit, but I force myself to make it to the end. And once you get into it, it actually becomes easier.

broken by blindness said...

Continued my response:

Even things we love require regular discipline. I think a big key is that people can't change in a vacuum. They need various kinds of support, such as accountability partners, group support, whatever. We grow so much better when we are in the right kinds of relationships--mutually supportive ones.

Shoot it's every person's core nature to take the path of least resistance. But a spark within can lead us to moving down the road less travelled. The issue for many folks comes after the initial passion from the "spark." And therein we need vision. And we need to share the vision with the right people in order to get the right support. We have to remind ourselves and when possible, be reminded daily and often. We need to track our progress and be wise not to make goals that are too big at once. Say, first time at the track, ten miles in an 1/2 hour. LOL That's a sure set up for preventable failure. (I say preventable failure, b/c failure is certainly not this horrendous thing people make it out to be. It's the preventable failure that gets tricky and problematic.)

Sure, I will never be the artist my father was either. But that is OK; b/c I have other talents, skills, abilities, and gifts. (Actually in college, b/c of an art elective, I learned I could sketch a little better than what I thought. My art professor taught techniques that seemed stupid to me, but they actually worked.) But no. I truly don't have the full ability my father or other have in that regard, and honestly, I don't have the desire to further develop whatever skills and abilities I have in this regard. Now, with music and other things, they come much easier to me.

Thankfully, I am not a frog or a scorpion. I'm me. But I get the basic moral of the fable. It just doesn't, IMHO, apply to learning discipline. Yes discipline may be easier for some--but we all have to work to overcome resistance and move forward. That's just the reality of life in this world; it’s like living with gravity.
"I believe that Resistance is the psychological counterpart to gravity in Physics. Because of it, change is not easy for humans … (however) change is DO-able!"-Jon Nare

My prayer is that something inside of Adam will spark a flame and that he will find the right direction/purpose and supportive others to help him be accountable along the way as he takes on developing disciplines one simple step at a time. The work of discipline won't be any easier--but it will become substantially more doable will the proper motivation, commitment, and support. This is what I heard one psychologist say about what people need in order to grow: "Grace, truth, and time." Passion and support-->the grace. Honest appraisal and purpose is the truth part, and well, time is time. One person's time may be different from another person's.

So. . . I must agree with Dr. Edelstein.

Mr. Nemko, again, I do love your advice and webpage, and I'm so glad I found it.

Marty Nemko said...

Dear Broken by Blindness,

Yes, sometimes people can change, but fundamentally overcoming procrastination is very difficult. Truly, I know a lot about overcoming procrastination and yet I have had only modest success in helping my clients to do it.

You mention running. I find that even many inveterate procrastinators have no trouble running regularly--because it simply involves putting one foot in front of the other. It's cognitive tasks or unpleasurable ones (e.g., perhaps cleaning one's office or doing one's taxes) where even a marathoner might procrastinate to great disadvantage.

Anonymous said...

Powerful advice a simple package.

Steve said...

Nice discussion, Marty. Being honest with ourselves about our abilities and track record in dealing with things that we feel are important to us is a critical step in making progress on them.

Here's a pointer to the "radical honesty" movement mentioned in a comment above: http://www.radicalhonesty.com