A clean slate

Ah, New Year’s Day. This morning, millions of people all over the world will vow to start over with a clean slate.

While our resolutions may be culturally dictated to a certain extent—not everyone wants to lose weight—the desire to start over has been a constant throughout human history. Perhaps that’s why most religions have rituals of purification.

In fact, the notion of starting anew may well be a fundamental part of the human psyche—and it can be tremendously transformative. There’s something powerful about making a decision and acting on it: It teaches us that we can exert some small influence over our destiny. I’ve seen the transformative power of such experiences in my life and in others.

My dad offers an excellent example. For the first 14 years of my life, he was inseparable from his pipe. He’d puff on it while he worked, while he read, while he drove, and even while he cooked. So accustomed was he to smoking that he once rescued me from drowning with his pipe still in his mouth. But when he decided to move the family from Peru to Minnesota, he also decided to give up smoking. That was it: No more pipe.

Of course, my dad is the exception. Most of us lack his iron will.

For most of us, those transcendent experiences of decision and change are also the most fleeting. It seems that the grander our pronouncement and the more radical the change, the less likely we are to succeed.

Perhaps that’s why I now take a different approach to resolutions. For starters, I seldom make them on New Year’s Eve. If something in my life needs fixing, I fix it. Why wait until January 1? And perhaps that’s also why I settle for small tweaks instead of giant overhauls. It’s more realistic to say that I’ll eat less chocolate than to give up candy entirely.

Psychologists tell us that—if we truly want to effect lasting change—we need to set small, specific, attainable goals. I’ve also heard that it takes at least six weeks to form a new habit.

The good news is that we really can achieve whatever goals we set for ourselves. The bad news? It takes consistent effort and time.

If you’re truly serious about making some changes in your life in 2010, I highly recommend Leo Babauta’s suggestions. Start small, be consistent, and you may just get big results.

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