Living in the present

Prague Leaders Magazine, January 2008

The celebration of the New Year is the oldest of all holidays. It was first observed in ancient Babylon some 4,000 years ago. But the Mesopotamians celebrated New Year in March, following the spring equinox. The Romans continued to observe the New Year in late March, but because the calendar fell out of synch with the sun, the Roman Senate in 153 BC, declared January 1 as the beginning of the New Year, so as to set the calendar right.

Traditionally, one of the customs used to mark the end of the year is to make a New Year’s resolution. This tradition also dates back to the early Babylonians, whose most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment.

Today, a New Year’s resolution is a commitment one makes to achieve a specific goal within the coming year. For example, to stop smoking, to work less or to spend more time with family. In theory, these resolutions are put into effect on New Year’s Day and are upheld until the set goal has been achieved.

But then, how many of us are able to keep our New Year’s resolutions?

Do we find it so difficult to keep our resolutions because we’ve chosen the wrong time of year or is it because the concept of making resolutions is itself a paradox? If we had the discipline to see our resolutions through, we wouldn’t need to make them in the first place. Moreover, making resolutions that are never realized or are broken shortly after they are set naturally leads to frustration.

Are our New Year’s resolutions a positive step towards self-betterment or a dismal failure of willpower?

Last January, when my friend Sarah thought about what she wanted to achieve in 2007, she had to admit to herself that though she was blessed with a wonderful husband and two great kids, her career didn’t provide her with the challenges she was looking for and failed to give her much opportunity for growth. As a result, she made it her number one goal to get a new job. As a dedicated professional, she drew up a plan and set herself on the path career change. She updated her resume, scoured the internet and sent out dozen of applications.

As the months went by and every application was rejected, she felt a growing sense of disillusionment. She had clearly defined her goal, outlined a specific plan and followed up on every lead and contact without any concrete results. As time went by, she started to lose her self-confidence and eventually became depressed. When summer came, she was still in the same old job feeling miserable and unworthy of the new job she was desperately looking for.

She became obsessed with her lack of results and turned her disappointment against everyone who tried to help and support her. Until she finally asked herself: “If I am in charge of my life, why am I feeling so miserable about my own goal?” Whose decision is it anyway and who is responsible for the results? She had come to the realization that her New Year’s resolution had taken over her life and that she wasn’t in control anymore. Her goal was in control of her life.

Know who you are and what you want

Like many people, Sarah was looking for a job that was meaningful and beneficial to both her and her company; a job that would allow her to use her skills, knowledge and talent. And like most of us, when she became familiar with the daily tasks of her job, as much as she enjoyed the feeling of certainty her competence gave her, she also started to feel bored by the routine. Instead on focusing on how she could make her current position more challenging, she started to look outside of the company. Instead, all she had to do was to re-evaluate her priorities. Firstly, she needed to identify what she enjoyed most about her present job and focus her energy on that. Secondly, she needed to identify what she didn’t like and find a way to change it. Having a greater awareness of herself and what she wanted and believed in would have allowed her to create the job she wanted and gain the self-confidence she was lacking to explore all the opportunities available in her present job.

Have a flexible approach and be prepared to redefine your goal

Life has a funny way of throwing unexpected things at us and flexibility is needed to complete anything but the simplest goal. If a goal creates more frustration than pleasure, maybe it is time to abandon the goal or to revise the plan if it isn’t within the realm of achievement. It would also be wise to revise its parameters or timing. It is time to let go of our need for certainty and accept the fact that the future is unpredictable: What we do doesn’t always give us the result we want. We have to expect and accept the fact that our plans can and will change. Sometimes the goal itself will even change.

Most of all, we need to recognize and welcome partial successes at every step along the way. Just as a resolution isn’t accomplished the day it’s stated, neither is it accomplished the day you reach your goal. Rather, it’s accomplished in many small increments along the way. We must acknowledge these incremental successes as they come.

The answer is to find alternatives to a behavior that we want to change and make this a part of our New Year’s resolution. For example, if you want to quit smoking, but need a cigarette to relax, you should look into what other ways of relaxation are available to you.

Live in the present

Children have no problem living in the moment, but as we get older, many of us forget how to stay completely in the present. We keep thinking about the past and rehearsing the future. Then if we are lucky, someone or something reminds us that life can only be lived in the here and now.

For Sarah, the “a-ha” moment happened while we were having lunch last October. While she launched into her regular complaints about her job, her boss and how demanding her family was, I asked her: “How’s your soup?” “My soup?” she replied, wondering why I was asking her about the soup in the middle of our conversation?

She paused for a second, and then answered truthfully, “I don’t know.” “Taste it,” I said. She did, and almost gagged. It tasted awful! “Yuk, that’s the worst-tasting soup I’ve ever had. I can’t eat that.” “I know,” I said. “It’s terrible. That’s why I didn’t eat mine. I watched you mindlessly eating a whole bowl of soup while you were so busy being somewhere else. I couldn’t believe you actually liked the soup. You weren’t paying any attention to it. That’s what being here now is about. Taste the soup.”

We are most happy and productive when we are living in the present. My suggestion for this New Year is to follow the wise words of Henri Thoreau: “Live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.”

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.