At this time of year I love to read everyone's resolutions, horoscopes, and predictions on life-style for the coming year. The weekend papers had some really clever columns on just this and I could not agree more with Leah McLaren and her take on getting out of bed. Anyone who knows me might think I was ghost writing this article. Tomorrow I'll report on my experiment of facing the world with a smile. In case you missed it, here is Leah's article.
Get up, stay up, don't give up the fight
For as long as I can remember, my day has begun with a moment of indecision.
My first thought upon waking is sensible: "I should get up," I think. "I have things to do."
Which would be great, if it wasn't swiftly followed by "But it's warm in here," "Maybe just five more minutes?" and "I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that sleep makes you smarter, younger and thinner," which is then followed by a half hour or so of pumping the snooze button until the urge to pee trumps the urge to stay in bed and I admit to myself that on this morning - as on so many others - it appears I will have to get up.
And so I get up.
You might put my inability to bounce out of bed at 7 a.m. down to laziness, but I prefer to think of it as a perverse form of intelligence. No, it isn't clever to loll around in bed after the alarm goes off, but it is my habit of over-thinking even the smallest decision that prevents me from doing all the things I say I am going to do in life - a list that includes learning French, contesting my municipal property tax reassessment and getting up on time.
Indecision, I have recently learned, saps willpower. Self-disciplined people do not struggle with questions such as "Should I get up?"
Self-disciplined people simply get up. Like dewy fitness models in Nike ads, they don't think about it. They just do it.
Just ask Jim Rangel, author of the recently published book The Skinny on Willpower: How to Develop Self Discipline.
After 25 years as a real-estate entrepreneur, this former lawyer and Harvard Business School lecturer decided to write a self-help book because he realized that, when it came to successful people, "the common strain was willpower - the ability to get in the game and stay in the game and, when you get knocked down, finding the strength to get back up."
This ability, he concluded, was the veritable "key to success," and "much more important than talent, intellect, good looks or luck." Or as Theodore Roosevelt put it, "With self-discipline, all things are possible. Without it, even the simplest goal can seem an impossible dream."
Which is too bad for all those stunningly gorgeous, gifted, lazy geniuses out there (among whom I like to count myself as I continue lying in bed).
Apparently life is just like a John Hughes movie and all the hot, popular rich kids are doomed to Champagne-sozzled failure while the plain, awkward nerds who work in record stores will inherit the Earth. Praise be to God. Or Hollywood. Or both.
So why talk of willpower? Well, today is Jan. 3, also known as the annual day when New Year's resolutions start to seem less attractive because, well, they're hard to keep, aren't they? (I think I read somewhere that carbohydrates, cigarettes and wine actually make you younger, smarter and thinner.)
Early January, traditionally, is the month when the secular world participates in its annual festival of self-denial, characterized by a brief - but valiant! - attempt at dieting, sobriety, exercise, budgeting and emotional well-being.
This year, however, we sit on the brink of a new era of frugality and the annual January purge must not be a blip, but actually set a new standard of asceticism that we must strive to implement year round.
Put another way: C'mon guys, this time it's for serious.
With this in mind, I have compiled the following cheat sheet for finding the willpower to keep your 2009 New Year's resolutions - assuming you haven't broken them already.
1. Prepare your mind
Steeling your resolve mentally before things get tough is essential to keeping resolutions, Rangel told me.
"That way, when you experience the pain, instead of saying, 'Oh my God,' you say, 'I've been expecting this,' and it becomes part of the process." He adds ominously that, "If the first time you encounter adversity it sets you off, then you're probably not ready to take on the challenge."
2. Create black-and-white rules for yourself
Self-discipline becomes easy once habits are formed. Rangel uses the example of brushing your teeth. When you were a child, the rule was "Brush your teeth before bed."
Now it comes automatically and most of us brush our teeth on autopilot.
3. Preserve your energy for when you need it
Don't waste time and mental energy internally debating over life's trivial decisions - just make a choice and be done with it. Or as William Johnson said, "The more we struggle and debate, the more we reconsider and delay, the less likely we are to act." So don't wait until you feel better to go to the gym. Go to the gym and you will feel better.
In his massive holiday-season bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000-hour rule, a neurological theory that it takes 10,000 hours of hard practice to become a world-class expert - at anything. By this standard, if your resolution is to quit smoking, it will take you roughly a year of doing anything but in order to become good at not doing the thing you are trying to avoid.
As for my resolution, things look a bit less hopeful. If practice makes perfect, I should be an expert early riser by the year 2036.
Globe and Mail, January 3, 2009