It Isn't the Climb, It's the Plateau

I guess this is the time of year when people start thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. What a load of crap those are, right? Even so, a lot of people, including myself, who hate the idea of a New Year’s Resolution end of thinking about what they’ve accomplished in the past year and what they’d like to accomplish going forward because of how many people are talking about it. Setting goals isn’t a bad thing at all. The problem is when perfectly good goals turn into “New Year’s Resolutions”. The problem with these resolutions is that they’re easy to let slip, feel bad about, and then, finally, you find yourself next December 31st remembering how you failed last year and saying “but this year is different”. I solved this problem for myself last year and have a plan for keeping my streak going.

Why NYR’s suck

The idea behind a New Year’s Resolution is to better yourself by resolving to do something positive… or so we say. Go back and re-read that last sentence – it’s worded very carefully. The important words are “to do” and “positive”. When people make resolutions I always hear the exact opposite of what a resolution should be. “I’m going to quit smoking” is always a big one and a perfect example of what a New Year’s Resolution shouldn’t be. That sort of idea will just set you up for failure. In fact, most resolutions are unrealistic, set people up for failure, and, most importantly, lack context.

Anatomy of a NYR

The “quit smoking” example above is actually one that I’m thinking of taking on. But I’m not going to “quit smoking” exactly. What I will do is “adopt a healthier lifestyle” and “allow myself to spend more time with people that are important to me” (which is a euphemism for not having to take smoke breaks). So that sounds incredibly cheesy and overcomplicated, I know. I still haven’t figured out how to word it but there’s some logic to it. Last year I learned how to think about New Year’s Resolutions in a way that helps me keep them and doesn’t allow me to give up on them if I ever fail. These are my rules:

  1. Frame the idea positively – Don’t tell yourself “no”, “no more”, “stop”, “quit”, or anything that’s a negative. Think about why it is you’re doing what you’re doing and frame it in terms of the benefits you hope to gain from it. So instead of quitting smoking I’m going to give myself a chance to run farther, smell better (as in not smelling like an ashtray), and gain the ability to spend an entire evening with someone without having to take a single smoke break.
  2. Give it some context – Goals should never exist in a vacuum. A goal (which is what a New Year’s Resolution is) is a lot like a scene in a movie. It may be funny or dramatic or manipulate some sort of emotion when you see it but its largely meaningless unless you see the entire movie in sequence. When I decided I was going to get serious about working out I didn’t just decide I was going to work out just for the sake of it. The idea was to create a new habit that would help me look better, feel better, and help me deal with my Winter Blues. I thought about it in the context of how I’d feel about myself every day for the rest of my life – not just how I’d lose 10 pounds and call it a day.
  3. Avoid temporary fixes – If you want to improve you’d think you would want to be the new improved version of yourself for more than just a few months or a year, right? A lot of people pick losing weight as their resolution. If they don’t quickly fail like most do then they let themselves go right after achieving what they had worked so hard for. This is exactly why I’ve always had a problem with goals as a means of self-improvement. They’re meaningless without vision. Whatever you do, it should be something that doesn’t end. If you want to lose weight it doesn’t mean you have to work out religiously and never quit. When I decided to get in shape last year I had a really rigid gym schedule but I did eventually reach my goal and now its a regular part of my life. Even so, I definitely don’t work out as often as I used to. I’m maintaining now. It’s important to remember that it’s alright to reevaluate things from time to time so long as you’re still on the improvement track.

Last year, I decided to lose weight and get in shape. I’ve never been fat or even chubby, I just knew that I wasn’t in great shape and I could do better. I wanted to look better, feel better, and perform better in all areas of my life. I knew working out would help me not only physically but mentally and that momentum spilled over into other areas of my life like work. I have to admit that one small part of my desire to get in shape was so I could start dating again with confidence. Mission accomplished.

Last year I resolved to feel better, look better, and perform better (along with one other thing we won’t mention). I achieved all that because I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions. I just create goals that move me closer to my vision. Last year they just happened to coincide with the new year and so it goes this year as well.

Beware the plateau

We all know most resolutions fail. Most resolutions barely get started to begin with. We won’t count those here. Of those that do get started, the road to reach them isn’t the hard part, it’s the plateau that follows. With a lot of goals you work hard and see steady improvement, especially at first, but eventually you hit a wall and feel as if you’re not getting anywhere. This happened to me recently as well. When I first started going to the gym I struggled badly just to do 10 pushups. I can now do 150 in under three minutes. That’s really not an impressive feat taken by itself. What’s impressive is the improvement from when I first began. The past few months however have seen me plateau to the point where I’m not feeling challenged anymore and it’s difficult to see further improvement.

Hitting a plateau can be discouraging but it shouldn’t be the thing that makes you give up. Any time you go from not doing something at all or rarely to practicing regularly you’re going to see things improve at a steady (sometimes slow but definitely steady) pace. Hitting a plateau often means that you’ve mastered your skill or reached your goal and that to move to the next level you’ll just need more of a challenge or extra practice. A plateau doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to move even further. You could always just continue at the level you’ve found yourself at depending on the goal. For example, a musician can plateau in his or her instrument of choice and be perfectly content continuing on at their level of skill so long as they’re happy and getting the results they expect from themselves. People like me who have decided to stay in shape can either maintain their current regimen or start pushing themselves harder. The choice all depends on your desired outcome.

Whichever option you choose, the important thing to remember is that its rare in life to ever be truly finished with anything. I may have gotten my body to a point where I’m happy with how it looks but that doesn’t mean I’m truly healthy. I can, in theory, let myself continue on with my current workouts just to maintain what I’ve got but now I’m adding in a few related things like eating healthier and giving up smoking to my list of goals. This year’s resolutions are just a continuation of things I began some time ago. Knowing where you’re going, where you are, and how you got there are three of the most important things that’ll help you measure your success and plan for the future.

The way you avoid or deal with a plateau is to remember that there is no real finish line. There are only milestones. Allow yourself to enjoy them, record them, celebrate them, look back on them and be proud but never let up on them. A little over six years ago I quit smoking. It only lasted for four months and I went back. I don’t get to go around proudly proclaiming that I quit smoking once, do I? Of course not, I failed. Sure, I succeeded before I failed but I still failed in the end so this doesn’t count as a milestone.

I have a very strong belief about goals that I constantly repeat: goals are total bullshit – it’s your vision that counts. New Year’s is a great time to start fresh, think about what you want from life, and to set yourself up to get it but don’t fall into the trap of setting meaningless goals. This year, try something different. Think of what you want five years from now. That’s your vision. Now think of what you need to do this year to get closer to that vision. Those are your goals. Those are your resolutions. Play the long game, it’s more rewarding.


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