Today is the 10th of January, still the beginning of the New Year (which, coincidentally, is 2012 this time). I have a couple of resolutions for this year, as many of you might. More than signifying an unfortunate hangover and some equally unfortunate questions about whom you kissed last night (oh-god-please-tell-me-it-wasn’t-insert-name-here), the first signifies another new beginning. It’s the time of year where we say to ourselves, Wow, I pretty much screwed last year up, how can I make sure I don’t do that again? Well, if you’re upset because you didn’t exercise enough, or didn’t study enough, or weren’t happy enough, and you’ve made resolutions to change these things, good. But you’ll probably fail, because you’re doing it wrong.
There are a lot of reasons that your mother told you “you aren’t as smart as your sister,” “you procrastinate,” “you’re never going to get into college” and “you’ll never get a girlfriend if you continue to refuse to put on deodorant. Don’t you know you smell? Swim practice doesn’t count as a shower, Kevin.” Apart from swim practice not counting as a shower, my mother was right. And whatever shortcomings your mother pointed out when you lived under her far-too-low roof, there’s a reason you heard them over and over. As much as it may have frustrated you to hear them, I guarantee it was just as frustrating for her to have to tell them to you. Unfortunately, you never changed.
The thing is that those little problems — whether it’s not trying hard enough in school, or getting fat, or procrastinating — each come down to something very annoyingly and slightly ironically called “self-control.” Ironic because we are obviously in control of ourselves (you have a brain, don’t you?), and annoying because we so often find that we aren’t. Understanding the hypocrisy of self-control and how it affects your everyday choices will help you understand those shortcomings your mother pointed out so often and give you an advantage in living out your resolutions.
But first let’s get one thing straight: the difference between goals and resolutions. Resolutions are lifelong changes you want to see whereas goals are achievements that, when acquired, sit on the ‘done’ shelf. AA will tell the future alcoholic in each of us that even after years it’s one day at a time, and you never stop being an alcoholic. Just like ‘x’ years or months sober, resolutions are lifelong, permanent changes and never go on to that dusty ‘done’ shelf.
So, don’t shortchange yourself by making a resolution like “I want to run a marathon” or “I want to get a 4.0” or “I want to lose 20 pounds.” Those are goals. If you’re resolving to exercise more, you can create goals of losing five, 10, or 15 pounds, if that’s how you want to measure it. Create your goals to reinforce your resolutions, giving you a way to catalog your success. Your ultimate goal should be success to the point that, next year, you don’t have to make that same resolution again.
Back to self-control. Motivation is a fickle sex partner, ask anyone. Just as soon as appearing, sexy and goddess-like, poof! She’s gone. The biggest problem is that we think of ourselves as a single person — one mind, with connected and congruent goals throughout our existence. Hold on one second, you may rightly say, how come, then, when I try to suppress a boner in my gym shorts, I can’t? It’s almost as if my male parts have a mind of their own! Well, they do.
What is a mind, anyway? Are we talking consciousness or are we talking neurons? We can go so far as to look to the digestive system, which will force us to throw up a poison to save our lives, completely without our permission. We can look to those times during class or behind the wheel when, as much as we will ourselves to stay awake, it’s sometimes close to impossible. We aren’t a single mind. We have different desires, different goals, within ourselves. Understanding that sometimes these goals are in conflict with each other is the key to understanding our problem with self-control. This is why we go to sleep when we know we should study, or go get a quesarito when we really shouldn’t be eating our 2,000 caloric quota in one sitting.
You have to literally fight yourself to do the right thing. Frustrating, isn’t it? You want to work out more, but by the time classes are over, you’ve convinced yourself it’s too late, or you have too much to do, or you’re too tired to go, and don’t even think about asking me to get up early, you say. And then you smack yourself when you realize you’ve been in bed watching Hulu reruns for an hour, dripping ice cream all over yourself instead of sleeping. It doesn’t help that we have a limited quantity of motivation in our reserves and it’s used forcing ourselves to go to classes during the day.
You must realize, dearest reader, that you, yourself, now, at this moment, in the present, currently (you get the idea) are a different person than your future self. You have different desires, goals and resolutions than that future person. You must prepare for the eventual battle that will take place with that future self, who is influenced by different desires. Perhaps he will think that 15 minutes of Facebook is more important than starting that essay. Maybe he’ll choose that extra hour of sleep over class, or that side of French fries over the salad. These little failures of self-control really aren’t failures of self-control, but a failure of understanding your present-bias and, also, a small defeat.
The good news is that the war is not even close to over, soldier. Do some push-ups, stretch a bit and prepare yourself for the biggest war of your life. It’s a daunting task, but you better be ready — you never know when the world is going to end.
Daily Nexus columnist Kevin Ferguson has already put an end to three staff members’ resolutions with one mention of the quesarito. Thanks Kevin.