Let’s talk about new year’s resolutions.
I suspect most of you have made them in the past, maybe you even have a slate of them set for this year.
This can be a great thing. The new year is a wonderful time to reflect on where you are, where you have been and where you would like to go.
However, I suspect many of you have set resolutions before and failed to live up to them.
This is certainly the norm in the fitness industry. Athletic trainers all know the reality of clients showing up in January, full of fire with how they are going to change themselves, and then slowing disappearing by February or March, only to show up again the next year to repeat the process.
I am not immune to this myself. Last year I set myself a goal to practice on my guitar 15 minutes every day. That lasted all of one week.
Let’s step back and ask if perhaps we should reconsider a tradition with a 90 plus percent failure rate.
I think there is a better way.
This last year at Evolve Move Play has been all about applying systems thinking and understanding ourselves, our practices and our lifestyles as ecologies. I think this perspective offers profound insight into why we often fail our new year’s resolutions and similar commitments throughout the year; as well as how we can build a better pathway forward.
The problem with many new year’s resolutions is often they are simply things we demand of ourselves— just an additional rule to follow in our life.
The reality is that most of us are not great at willing ourselves to follow rules, especially as our lives fill up with work, children and habits. Making change by pure will becomes harder and harder.
“Go to the gym every day” seems like a simple enough rule. Especially after a couple weeks of relative rest over Christmas break and when we are trying to pull on pants that are a little bit tighter then they were before the holidays.
But if it was really that simple many more of us would be succeeding.
Real change requires much more than the introduction of new rules. It’s more complicated but, when done correctly, it actually becomes much easier.
To paraphrase Jordan Peterson… our motivations, our interests and our attention are not our slaves and when we treat them as if they are, we are bound to fail in the pursuit of our aims.
In order to create new habits that are sustainable, we need more than just will. We need better self knowledge and we need to work to shift our environments, grow our communities and develop habit triggers that make it easy, even automatic, to follow through on the practices that allow us to become the people we truly want to be.
I want to introduce an idea I learned from John Vervaeke. The old greek word “sophrosyne” (suh-fros-uh-nee) can be translated as something like self control that is automatic, rather than willed. One can think of it as setting yourself up so that only the good tempts you.
Imagine two people: John and Linda. When you meet John and Linda, they are both very fit, and healthy. John and Linda both get up every morning and do a morning movement practice, they train hard 3 days a week, and both choose health promoting diets.
Every day when they wake up, they can both imagine skipping their routine to spend time passively consuming YouTube or video games. For John, every morning he is tempted deeply to abandon his routine, but he grits his teeth and gets it done. For Linda though, there is no temptation; her morning practice is a simple, intuitive and automatic thing. While other thoughts may occur to her, they have no hold on her. For Linda, her routine is Sophrosynic
Similarly, each of them can see how they might spend their training time watching Netflix, smoking weed or otherwise killing their time. Both realize how much they might enjoy substituting chocolate cake, cheetos and coca cola, for meals of meat, veggies and water. Both can see the potential pleasure in falling into these temptations, the difference again is that for John, each training day, each meal, is a matter of willing himself to do what is right, while for Linda, though she understands the temptation it has no hold on her.
Now ask yourself, if you met John and Linda again in 10 years, who is more likely to have held onto their healthy habits?
Whose habits are more likely to survive a major difficulty in their family, personal or work life?
Or more simply, who is having a better quality experience living out those habits?
I suspect you will answer all three questions with Linda.
This is the difference between Sophrosynic self control and what the greek’s called “Enkrateia” (en-krah-tay-a).
John uses Enkrateia – the self control involving will and discipline.
Linda uses Sophersyne – the self control that simply flows.
Our culture admires hard work; we admire grit. This means we often set our focus at the level of Enkrateia. This is not entirely wrong, for Enkratia is often our most useful tool in starting any new practice. The problem is that this form of self control is fragile, exhaustible, limited and grueling.
If every training session is an act of supreme willpower, we are unlikely to sustain that practice. Our training will be easily interrupted by life circumstances, and our session will not add to our quality of life.
The mindset we need to adopt is to use willpower to create a system that makes application of will unnecessary. Enkrateia is a bridge to Sophersyne when used correctly; but when used incorrectly, it’s only a pathway to failure.
As it says in the Tao Te Ching: “The sage does nothing and yet nothing is left undone”.
What I read from this is the wise person has set themselves up so there is always a perfect alignment between what they desire to do and what needs to be done. When this is so, there is no sense of effort, when what needs to be done simply flows.
So how do we do this?
We have to do more than give ourselves new rules to follow; we have to build systems that support those rules.
Here I believe, another concept from Vervaeke is of great use. The four kinds of knowledge.
- Propositional knowledge is knowledge only held semantically. For instance I can describe to you how to kong vault, and you can understand the description perfectly, but that does not make you capable of performing that movement.
- Procedural knowledge is the next level, this is actually being able to do the kong.
- Perspectival knowledge is the type of knowledge that shifts how we see the world. An experienced parkour athlete sees how the environment affords kong vaults, while the inexperienced athlete may understand the procedure, but still not have absorbed the perspective.
- Participatory knowledge is the specific way in which the experience of having done something, or having related with someone, changes you and the object or other person.
One way to look at this is:
Propositional knowledge gives us rules.
Procedural knowledge gives us routines.
Perspectival knowledge gives us roles.
Participatory knowledge gives us relationships.
When we give ourselves a new rule— be it about our training, our diet, our habits, etc… If it only penetrates to the level of proposition we will almost certainly fail.
We need to consider how we will build a routine out of the rule, how we will adopt the role of a practitioners of that rule, and what the transformation this will afford us is.
For instance when you decide to start a movement practice, or you plan to make a big change to your practice, you have to ask yourself what that routine will look like.
Where can I train like this? When can I fit it in my schedule? What am I willing to sacrifice to make time for this practice? How does this change ripple through the routine of my daily life?
Routine is the most pragmatic step but even here it is easy to lose if the change we are asking of ourselves if it is not aligned on the deeper levels.
The perspectival and participatory are not so easy to project into the future, but we can use introspection to understand ourselves better and imagination to explore the changes we wish to make.
Ask yourself: When my movement routine is fully integrated, how will I change the way I see the world, what is the role I will be beginning to play and what does that mean to me?
Next, consider what this relationship with your practice might become and how it will transform you and benefit you and your loved ones over the course of your life. Done right this step can be incredibly powerful in developing truly sustainable and nourishing practices.
Often we are setting new rules on ourselves not because they are deeply meaningful to us, but because they are widely shared in our culture. We are responding not to our own motivations but to what we think is wanted of us by others.
We choose to lose 15 lbs in the new year not because this goal is going to meaningfully and powerfully transform us into the person we would like to become, but because we worry we might be perceived as overweight by others and we see that everyone else is doing the same.
When we adopt these rules for external reasons, not because they are driven by something truly meaningful to us as individuals, they are far less sustainable. This is especially true if they conflict with other drives or aspects of ourselves that we find important.
Whatever the new rules you propose for yourself, take time to ask if they are aligned with your most powerful motivations. Is this goal important enough to you that you are willing to change to achieve it?
If not, you are better off not setting the goal at all as every time you fail to follow through on a goal you are conditioning yourself towards failure.
We have so much more to say about this and in our next article we will be going into more detail on pragmatic elements of habit building and the role of the environment, community and habit triggers in conditioning ourselves for success.
For now, I hope this gives you better start on setting new years resolutions that can truly work for you.
If you’re just getting started, or if your goal is to more deeply devote yourself to a natural movement practice, we designed our Introduction to Natural Parkour online course around these principles and through it we can personally help you set yourself up for success in 2020.
Or if you want to get an even closer look at these concepts in action while embarking on an epic adventure, our retreats have consistently been profound triggers for igniting a transformative practice in our students.
If you are interested in either of these opportunities, you can join the waitlists by clicking here