In case you missed it, this past weekend was the beginning of Spring! If you live in the Eastern time zone, it started on Sunday morning, while for the rest of us in the U.S., it started late Saturday evening. Unless you are 120, March 19th is the earliest day that Spring has arrived in your lifetime. This is due to a couple of factors, one being that this is a leap year (If you want to know more about what determines the first day of Spring and why it came early this year, you can check out the farmer’s almanac).
Spring, like New Year’s, is a popular time for people to try to implement change. In fact, New Year’s originally fell in Spring time. The earliest recording of a new year celebration is believed to have been in Mesopotamia, circa 2000 B.C. That celebration was celebrated around the time of the spring equinox (also known as the vernal equinox) when the crops were planted.
In my blog this week, I’ll provide some insight into how we got started on making annual resolutions and how they evolved into our quest to make personal changes in our lives. I’ll then discuss why Spring may be a better time for making changes than January 1st (although it also depends on what type of change you want to make).
Brief History of New Year’s Resolutions and Our Modern Day Calendar
According to the History Channel, in addition to holding the earliest New Year’s celebrations, the ancient Babylonians of Mesopotamia held a massive multi-day religious festival known as Akitu, where the Babylonians crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the reigning king. During this time, they also made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed (we would probably all benefit if everyone made those promises still!). These promises could be considered the precursors of our New Year’s resolutions.
To better understand how the process of New Year’s resolutions became a part of our present day culture, it’s important to understand some history of our modern day calendar and how it evolved over the centuries.
Our present day calendar evolved from the time of the Roman Empire. The original Roman calendar was said to be invented by Romulus, the first king of Rome, around 753 BCE (Before Common Era). The Roman calendar was believed to have been based on the lunar cycle and started the year in March (similar to the Mesopotamians) and consisted of 10 months. The winter season was not assigned to any month, so the calendar year only lasted 304 days with 61 days unaccounted for in the winter. In 46 BCE Julius Caesar introduced a new solar-based calendar that was a vast improvement on the ancient Roman calendar, which had become rather inaccurate over the years. The Julian calendar decreed that the new year would occur on January 1.
January is named after the god, Janus, the two-faced god whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches. January had special significance for the Romans. Believing that Janus symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future, the Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.
For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to be better in the future. In 1740, the English clergyman John Wesley, founder of Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, most commonly held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. The night services held on New Year’s Eve spread to other Christian denominations and were often spent praying and making resolutions for the coming year. Despite the tradition’s religious roots, New Year’s resolutions today have since evolved to where most people make resolutions to themselves which typically focus on self-improvement.
When you look back at our world history, you can see that the start of Spring was often considered the start of the new year by ancient civilizations and continued in some places all the way until the middle ages. Further, when you consider how many people fail at keeping their New Year’s resolutions (A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology by the University of Scranton states that about 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions, but that just 8% of them are successful in keeping them) you can make a strong case that we might have been better off keeping the start of our New Year in line with the Spring Equinox.
The Chinese Perspective on the Seasons
According to the ancient Chinese, winter is a time for storage and preserving one’s energy. It is a time to rest and get plenty of sleep. Rest is important for revitalizing the kidneys as well as strengthening immunity for the winter. Focus on trying to lower stress and avoid overworking. If you suffer from insomnia, this is a good time to heal your sleep. In winter, it is advisable to mimic the quieter qualities of the Water element by being still and quiet, and containing your energy within yourselves. Meditation, yoga, qi gong, contemplation are all great tools that help you to be present.”
Therefore, come next January 1st, if you want to make a few resolutions, some ideal ones to make at that time would be to begin a daily meditation practice; start a yoga class; or focus on getting a good night sleep and plenty of rest. For individuals (like myself) who want to gain weight, winter is the ideal time to add to your body’s stores.
While winter is a time to conserve energy and reduce activity, spring is a time of regeneration, new beginnings, and a renewal of spirit. Spring also aligns with the Wood element whose energy flows up and out and with the liver organ. Therefore, if hitting the gym or getting outdoors to exercise more is your objective, spring is the ideal time to set this type of goal. Spring is also a great time to do your spring cleaning and unclutter your life.
How to Make Lasting Changes
If you are like the majority of people I know, you have one or more habits you would like to change or implement in your life and at least one or more major goals that continues to elude you. However, most of us struggle to implement changes in our lives and many have simply given up.
5 Tips for Developing and Keeping Healthy Habits
1. Understand Your Motivation and Create a Written Plan
Before setting any goal, you should take a few minutes and reflect on why you want to incorporate this goal into your life and in what ways it will improve your life. You should also identify what are the negative consequences of not making this change. Write down your answers and post them where you can see them so that when you hit a bump in the road you can reignite and refocus yourself toward your goal.
After you have read all the tips in this blog, create a plan of action in which you create your goals, identify potential allies, identify ways of avoiding triggers, and setting up a reward system.
2. Start with Modest 30 Day Goals
Lasting habits take time to develop. It normally takes at least 30 days to form a habit with the first week or two being the most challenging. Stephen Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, gives an analogy that forming a habit is like trying to go to the moon. The vast majority of a rocket’s energy is used to travel the first 62 miles due to the friction created by the atmosphere and the strong gravitational pull of the Earth. Once you clear the Earth’s atmosphere there is much less resistance and it takes significantly less energy to travel the remaining 238,838 miles to the moon. Therefore, while you may be gung ho to start a challenging hour long exercise program, your rocket engines might fizzle out before you reach outer space because carving out an hour every day or two is proving to be more difficult than you hoped. You might be better served by setting a more modest goal of going for a brisk 15-minute walk 3 times a week to begin with. Or try this scientific based 7-minute workout by the New York Times.
3. Get Others on Board
Tell other people about your goal. This can be scary for some because they are afraid that by publicly announcing their goal, everyone will know if they fail. However, there are two benefits to telling people about your goal. First, the more people you tell, the more accountable you become. For example, I told just one person that I was going to write a blog over the weekend to send out on Monday and that actually helped me sit down and focus on my task at hand.
Secondly, when you share your goals you are more likely to discover that others may have a similar goal. This helps you build a support system of one or more people who you can call if you find yourself struggling and need a little pep talk. This also helps create a network of people that you can try to enlist to join you in your goal. For example, getting together with a friend to go for a walk every morning or signing up for a healthy cooking class (Google “healthy cooking classes” or if you live in NY, Chicago, or LA try coursehorse – they also have online courses).
4. Replace a Bad Habit
If your goal is to stop a bad habit, then you should try to incorporate a good habit to take its place. This effectively doubles the benefit of the habit you are trying to stop. Whether your goal is to stop smoking or reduce the amount of sugar you eat, it’s important that you replace that habit with something to fill the gap you are creating. Replacing a cigarette with breathing exercises or keeping carrot sticks or some nuts handy to fill that sugar craving for example.
If you are trying to quit a bad habit, it’s also important to have a plan to address when stress and boredom arise. Otherwise, you will likely revert back to your habit during these times. And finally, learn what triggers your habit and then create a plan to avoid them.
5. Reward Yourself for a Job Well-done!
Think about setting up a reward schedule as that is either neutral or acts as a secondary benefit, similar to replacing a bad habit with a good one. For example, if your goal is to stop eating excess sugar, reward yourself with a new outfit (neutral) or a healthy massage (secondary benefit), rather than a small piece of cake. If your goal is to quit smoking, set up a fund with the money saved from smoking that will go tickets to a show (neutral) or a weekend hiking trip (secondary benefit). Also try to create rewards that will be fun and create lasting memories. While there is nothing wrong with rewarding yourself occasionally with a piece of cake (I certainly do!), that cake will long be forgotten by the time the next day rolls around.
Making positive change is difficult, but taking advantage of the lengthening days of spring can provide a boost to make some healthy changes in your life that might otherwise prove more difficult in the dead of winter when the days are short (save for the few suggestions mentioned earlier). However, regardless of season, you can implement change in your life if you take the time to make a plan, enlist help, and then follow through with it. If you do fail, rather than simply giving up, try to review what went wrong and then revise your goal accordingly.
In my next blog, I’ll discuss how you can use technology to further help you create positive habits and track your progress.
P.S. – Acupuncture can be beneficial for helping reduce stress which can further support you during the process of making positive lifestyle changes. Acupuncture can also be helpful for those trying to quit smoking. Feel free to call or email me if you have questions or to schedule an appointment.