As we put away the Christmas decorations, tighten our belts and resolve to do better in the coming year, I’m sure many of us are reflecting on the difficulty of keeping our resolutions beyond the first few weeks of January. Willpower is in short order these days, it seems, made shorter this year by the trying world news and the prospect of another few months spent indoors. At least, those are the excuses we give ourselves as we contemplate the scale and the bank account.
Here is a way to circumvent your atrocious willpower and still have a well-managed, meaningful year. This year, instead of making resolutions, focus on creating rhythms and observing rituals.
Rhythms are flexible schedules that allow room for the flow of life. As the mom of a newborn, I know well that life is unpredictable. Instead of trying to force a rigid schedule, I keep a rhythm for my day, choosing the most important things to do and going through them in the same order as the day allows. Here’s an example of what is important for me at this stage:
• Prayer and devotion with Nathan before he leaves for work
• Educational activities with baby like music, reading books, and free play/ tummy time
• Take a walk
• Cook dinner
• Chores and work for our businesses
• Regular feeds and naps for baby based on age appropriate needs
I use these priorities to create a rhythm for the day and it will change and flex as baby grows and we move on to new activities. Day to day, the order of events is predictable, which creates peace and harmony for both baby and me. There are weekly rhythms as well: Monday stretch class, Tuesday mom group, Thursday prayer and Friday Shabbat. Then there are the annual rhythms of seasons and holidays that bring a special magic to the daily routine.
Rituals help us center ourselves in the day to day as well. The ritual of family dinner time is an important one to us — we use cloth napkins and light a candle, pray together holding hands and talk about our day, whether dinner is as simple as a quesadilla or as special as a roast. But there are other little rituals too: singing the playtime song as I put baby on his floor quilt signals that it’s time to wiggle and explore. Putting on jammies and turning on the salt lamp gets us ready for sleep. Tidying up our spaces before I begin work helps me clear my head and think creatively.
Think of how children interact with the day — they have no real concept of time, they don’t watch the clock. They need lots of preparation for what is coming next. If the daily rhythm is predictable, if their rituals are familiar, they feel at peace because they can get mentally prepared for the day. Adults have a higher capacity for processing changes, but I wonder if it comes at a greater cost than we realize. I wonder if adults would benefit almost as much as children by following a predictable rhythm and familiar rituals.
Scientific studies show that willpower is reduced by having too many decisions to make. Like children, we thrive if more of the decisions have been made for us beforehand. We can use rhythm to set our life in order so that there is no question to settle of what we will do next.
Our hectic modern-day world prioritizes punctuality and productivity. Since the industrial revolution, the speed at which a machine or person can produce output has been a high measure of success. Instead of “what did I do today?” the question asked is, “what did I get done?” But the problem here is that we are not machines, we are humans. We are made for human connection, and our work is meant to be integrated into the rest of our lives. Really, what is the purpose of work except to sustain our selves and care for those around us?
Maybe we can shift our thinking this year from one of output and resolve and focus instead on meaning. There are important tasks to accomplish, to be sure, but it takes healthy bodies and whole minds to accomplish them, which we cannot achieve by sheer willpower. Rhythm and rituals nourish the mind, foster connection, and tether our lives to the deeper meaning beneath it all.