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Achieving Resolutions and Facing Inaction

Every year, there’s a flood of newspaper articles, instagram posts, blogs (this one included, I suppose), and more about setting and actually achieving New Years resolutions.

According to this New York Times article, entitled “Make a Resolution”, over half of all resolutions fail (note: a statistic I am curious and suspicious of). So what’s the prescription for this very human ill; how can we actually achieve our tipsily-pronounced visions for the new year?

Before tackling this question, I might address a question of your own. Why would I be writing about New Years resolutions on the blog of an environmentally-focused think-do-be tank? Doesn’t it seem a bit… outside the scope?

Well… yes and no.

I find a startling similarity between our inability to keep New Years resolutions and our inability (as a general rule) to implement real climate action, both as individuals, and as larger groups. I’m sure, at this stage, that most of you readers will have heard of the psychology of climate inaction — the questions and queries about why, considering the urgency of our impending climate crisis, individuals and nations are faced with an inability to act?

Ignoring the issue of climate denialism, this area of research focuses on those of us who accept that climate change is real and a huge risk — and yet find ourselves incapable of action. While I could write another blog post simply about this area (and actually just might — stay tuned), my focus here is the parallels between climate inaction and resolution failures.

Just as we find ourselves unable to keep our New Years resolutions, so we find ourselves unable (for whatever reason) to act for our planet’s (and our) health and survival. We feel guilty, give excuses, get frustrated, and perhaps finally just accept that it was too hard, that we’ll try again next year, that we shouldn’t feel bad because everybody (or at least half of us) ends up failing.

So, without casting blame or shame — and hey, it’s only January 11, there’s still hope for us — let’s start the year positively, looking at ways for us to improve rather than analyzing all the ways that human kind can fail.

The NYT offers a big tip. It’s simple, but loaded with charge:

Pick the right resolution

— a.k.a Make it a SMART goal.

As discussed in a previous blog, SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented and Achievable, Revelant, and Time-limited. You can read all about that there, but I’ll just touch on a few key points here.

According to psychologists, one of the biggest reasons that people struggle to act on climate change is that it’s an invisible, slow-moving, and abstract threat (see more). Furthermore, the enormity of the issue (in every way: it’s threat, scope, and level of challenge) paralyzes us, makes us seem helpless and useless. That’s why our environmental ambitions need to be specific, with a clear target that is tailored to us and our capabilities. Same goes for our resolutions. Every year, I resolve to be “healthier”. But what is healthy? What I should be resolving to do is to sleep before 10pm each night, or to avoid junk food five days of the week, setting a specific target that addresses my overall goal. Likewise, we shouldn’t strive to be “more environmentally conscious”, but set clear and specific targets that go to that end (e.g. source your products from sustainable brands, like!)

While specific goals are great, they also have to be achievable. Can I really expect myself to get to bed before 10pm every night? Absolutely not. Every week night? Even that is doubtful.

Many of our resolutions — both of the New Years and environmental variety — are simply unachievable. We need to ensure that our resolutions are equally doable and meaningful. What’s the use of a doable resolution if it’s not meaningful; or a meaningful one if it’s simply unachievable? Seemingly ‘impossible’ goals often get tossed out well before the end of January. Much like our feeling of helplessness in regards to climate change, we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of ‘impossible goals’ — and so we hide from them, just as we hide from the climate crisis — arguing that it’s not possible, too costly in whatever way, or simply “too hard”. And maybe we’re right.

Specific and achievable goals go hand-in-hand; they allow us to focus our efforts in calculated ways in order to ensure maximum impact. We tend to disengaged when faced with overwhelming issues, whether they are too big or too challenging, because they make us feel afraid and guilty. Fear can be a good motivator, but not when it’s overwhelming, and it can cause us to freeze up. Guilt and blame doesn’t help either, just reinforcing the barriers and defenses we have against action. By making our goals specific and achievable, we make them realistic. We can see the end of our target -- it's within our grasp! -- giving us continuous motivation and drive.

Just as importantly, our goals must be relevant to our life, our interests, our personal agenda, and our capabilities. Otherwise, why should we care, and how can we expect to have impact? We know the ways in which we are most passionate and impactful, and we can harness that to achieve any resolution -- personal or global.

That's all for this week, folks! Make some SMART goals this year and stay tuned for more tips and ponderings by subscribing to our blog below!

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