Resolutions, Habits, and Intention

I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Certainly not after young adulthood.

Before that, making a long list of things I would change about myself as each new year rolled in was an act I never questioned. But then it came to me. Resolutions rarely accomplish anything—unless it’s to make you feel bad about yourself. If you were like me, you tended to think of resolutions in terms of negatives, things you’d been doing wrong or at least were not doing right.

I made resolutions the wrong way, too: broad generalizations which couldn’t be quantified and which, even if they could, were usually impossible to live up to. New Year’s resolutions were downright disheartening. They emanated from guilt and were generally doomed to create even more.

So, no New Year’s resolutions for me.

But as we rang in 2020, I realized that 2019 had taught me something immensely important. Not about resolutions, but habits. Resolutions are so often built around breaking bad ones. Hard to do. What about building good habits instead? Practically by accident, I developed several new habits—all good—in 2019. Along the way, I discovered good habits are as easy to form as bad ones.

I feel like a genius!

A couple of my habits have taken the form of lists. I began 2019 by listing EACH BOOK I COMPLETED, mostly out of curiosity. How much was I actually reading?. Before I knew it, recording my reading became second nature. Keeping a log of one’s reading material may be kind of neutral as habits go, but I count this list-keeping as a positive, if only because I stuck to it. But there is more to it. My list gives me information to feed on. It helps me remember what I’ve read and reminds me what I want to follow up on. It helps me clarify what I like and why I like it so I can make more informed reading choices in the future. It’s a reference point for issues to develop in my writing, philosophy, and more.

About midway through the year, I began a Moment of Joy (MOJ) journal. I’ll write more about that in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that what began as a whim became a habit, almost overnight—to someone who with a lifelong ineptitude when it comes to keeping any sort of diary or journal. My MOJ journal became something bigger. Unintentionally, it became a practice in intention.

I formed another intentional habit quite unintentionally when I read Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North. She wrote about a spiritual retreat where participants were instructed to chew each bite of food, even their breakfast porridge, thirty times. Was that even possible? I had to give it a try.

It felt a little silly at first, counting every time my teeth met. But as I learned it was possible to chew one type of food thirty times, I wanted to test another. And again, without realizing it, I had developed a new habit. I began to catch myself, just below my consciousness, counting. My mind was at work building an intention, slowly ticking off the chews: twenty-seven . . . twenty-eight . . . twenty-nine . . . thirty. And sometimes up to forty or more. I was no longer chewing for the counting. Counting became a means—a pleasant way to be more intentional about the process of eating.

Not only can thirty chews per bite be done (usually); it has tremendous emotional and physical benefits. I stopped choking on food, something that happens far too often, usually because I’m in a hurry or talking or trying to multitask as I eat. Other digestive problems began to lessen or disappear altogether. I found myself more tranquil, more aware of my surroundings. It turns out that chewing each bite thirty or so times is intensely calming and refreshing. What I took on as a one-time challenge became another intention, one with far-reaching results.

Well, the new year is here and I’ve begun yet another project. This gal never before succeeded in developing a journaling habit just gave herself a five-year, line-a-day journal. It’s really more like four or five lines a day. Three hundred and sixty-seven pages, each with space for five years’ worth of notes for every date on the calendar. I’m hopeful that the constraints of this journal will help me stay on track, especially since I’m incorporating my MOJs into each day’s notekeeping. In 2025 I can, at a mere glance, look back on five years’ worth of entries for any given date for the last half decade. I think the comparison will be fascinating.

Now that I think about it, it’s a huge statement of optimism for a septuagenarian to purchase a blank book in anticipation of adding to it for 1800 days. That’s a pretty hopeful intention itself.

I’ve even started a weather diary–another five-year project.

What I learned during the past year has changed me. I’m learning to think more intentionally about lots of things—to BE more intentional. That will surely lead to more good habits, easy to keep.

Who needs resolutions?

On Living Well

One of the important writers in my life is Robert Fulghum. In case you don’t recognize the name, the easiest way to identify him, though it’s far too limiting, is to say he’s the author of Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I never fail to be moved by his thinking and his insights. So, today, I’m cheating a little bit.  Instead of posting my own thoughts, I want to pass along something he wrote on his website not long ago because it speaks to me, because it’s important and I want to share it. (He even gave me permission. See?)

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Please Note: This journal contains a wide variety of stuff — complete stories, bits and pieces, commentary, and who-knows-what else. As is always the case these days, the material is protected by copyright. On the other hand, I publish it here to be shared. Feel free to pass it on. Just give me credit. Fair enough?

Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah.
The second week of September, 2018
Cooler weather, mix of sun and clouds, with occasional rain showers . . .

BED MAKING

A man I know well makes up his bed every morning.
He wakes up around 6:00, rises, puts on his robe, and – weather permitting – carries his duvet and two pillows outside to hang in the sunny morning air.
Then he turns on some music, makes coffee, takes a shower, and dresses.
The last act of this daily ritual is taking his sun-infused duvet and pillows
back inside to arrange on his bed, ready for his return at night.

Why these morning habits?
Why does he bother making up his bed every day?
Even he wonders sometimes.
Who cares?

After all, he is a single man, living alone – with no next-door neighbors.
His house is twenty five miles away from the nearest town.
He seldom has visitors – and he rarely entertains house guests.
Therefore, nobody is likely to have access to his private environment or witness his early morning rituals.
Nobody is going to know whether he makes his bed or not.
And yet . . . despite his solitary privacy – reliably – day after day, week after week, year in and year out – he makes up his bed.

Well . . . almost always . . .
But there was one exceptional week – three years ago.
When he fell into a deep black hole of existential despair.
And he just let go of the reins of his life.
He thinks of it now as The Week of Living Like a Loser.

The dirty dishes piled up in the kitchen sink for days.
The garbage cans were filled to overflowing.
In the refrigerator, moldy hair began growing on the leftovers.
The laundry accumulated in unwashed heaps.
The bathroom became a grotty mess.
And his bed was left unmade – a stale snarl of gnarly sheets and blankets.

And nobody – nobody – ever witnessed this fall from grace.

“Who cares – who gives a damn about how I live in my cave?” he thought.

And then . . . one morning . . . he finally crawled up out of his dung heap,
and looked around in dismay – a man living a homeless existence in his own home.
He dressed and drove away – fled to spend a day hiking along the river.
And stayed in town in a motel overnight.
The next day he came home to his house and himself – to put them back in order.

Who cared? Well . . . he did.
He could not live like a loser for long.
His daily morning ritual resumed, and has remained in place until this very day.

You might say the man has OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Perhaps. But that’s a speculative negative view.
Besides, if you witnessed the higgledy-piggledy unpredictable way he goes about
most days and weeks you could hardly say he is set in his ways.
One useful morning habit is not the sign of pervasive neurosis.
You might say the man simply learned something about his need for self-respect — in his environment and in his own skin.

The man I know recently saw a video of a commencement address by the Admiral who leads the U.S. Navy SEALS – the toughest, most highly-trained combat unit in any armed forces in the world.
The Admiral said that the first thing required of SEALS is simply to make their beds to a high standard every morning.
He said it was a matter of self-discipline, self-respect, and personal pride in paying reliable attention to a small, ordinary task.
Moreover, he explained, making your bed in the morning meant that no matter how arduous, dirty, or awful a day of training might be – a SEAL would have a personal place to come back to at the end of the day that was rightly welcoming.
The day would at least begin well and end well.

The man I’m writing about hasn’t applied to be a SEAL, but if he did, he could at least meet the first basic requirement – making his bed just right every day.
He, too, understands the pleasure of coming to the end of the day to a bed prepared as if he was an honored guest in his own home.
Part of that pleasure is lying down on sheets and pillows rinsed in the morning sunshine. And then closing his eyes in the deep quiet dark sleep of contentment.

I’ve been writing about a man I know quite well.
The man, of course, is me.
We are on very intimate terms.
I meet him in the bathroom mirror every morning and at the end of every day.
There he is – again and again.

Sometimes I think and write about him in the third person in order to consider his life objectively, and help him stay in touch with his better self.
Because he gets lazy and sloppy at times – in his house and in his mind.
He needs to be reminded that the truth of his character lies in what he thinks and does alone – in solitude, when nobody else is watching.
He needs to be reminded to be a special guest in his house and in his life –
even though that’s not always easy or simple or required.

But if he makes his bed every morning, the day will at least begin and end well.
And he can drift off to sleep knowing he has at least the most basic requirement for becoming a Navy SEAL.

Plato wrote that Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Yet the man I know often goes about his life without examining it –
he doesn’t have time to be relentlessly, thoughtfully, reflective all the time.
He’s too busy just living through the tasks and opportunities of a given day.
If it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is also true that the life not lived well is not worth examining.

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If you want more of Fulghum, click here.