I’ve been thinking lately about sustainability—the capacity for a practice or habit to continue, successfully, for the long term.
We hear this word a lot when people talk about conserving resources or the environment. But I think “sustainability” is something we should consider on a much more personal scale, too. How we feel and whether we achieve what we hope to so often comes down to making small but sustainable, everyday choices.
Want to see what ISN’T sustainable? Just take a look at common New Year’s resolutions:
- “Give up all sugar.”
- “Get promoted at work.”
- “Lose 20 pounds.”
- “Start dating again and find that special someone.”
The common thread here? We find no reflection on the “whys,” no plan, and no support along the way.
Honestly, I’m not a fan of resolutions this year. Too often, they come from a mindset of lack, an attitude of “not good enough.” Other times, people make resolutions because they feel obligated to meet some unrealistic standard. Media images of thin, beautiful, wealthy, or powerful women, for example, suggest to us false notions of how we “should” be.
Either way, resolutions tend to be based in negativity that is defeating, and ultimately, not sustainable.
Let’s ditch the negativity—in fact, let’s ditch the resolutions!—and adopt a new approach. What might we achieve, if instead of focusing on what’s wrong, we reflect honestly upon our present reality and consider how to build on what’s right?
Did you catch in that last paragraph that we can take hold of two distinct keys to a more positive approach? Let’s look at them as separate steps on the path to sustainable goals.
- “Reflect honestly upon present reality.”
Sounds nice, but what does to “reflect honestly” actually mean? It means seeing your current circumstances clearly—no blinders, no brushing truth under the rug—but also seeing without judgment. You must be willing to embrace acceptance.
Acceptance doesn’t mean adopting an attitude of defeat (“Oh well, why bother trying anymore?”). And I’m not suggesting you pretend life’s difficulties don’t exist, either. Instead, acceptance means identifying your obstacle, looking it in the eye—and adjusting your course to move around it.
Continuing to worry about facts that are unchangeable, or to beat yourself up for past failures or opportunities lost, or to yearn after a reality that is firmly behind you, or (you fill in the blank)… is far too limiting. But simply accepting these realities as facts of the present opens up possibilities. Consider the vast difference between these two statements:
- “I am constantly a jittery, distracted mess because I can’t kick this 20-year cigarette habit.”
- “I have a nicotine addiction.”
The first declaration is mired in despair and self-judgment over years of past failure. But hope presents itself in the simple truth of the second assertion. This statement shows acceptance of the present reality—not acceptance of a personal failing but of an objective fact. That’s honest reflection in a nutshell.
Let the past remain behind, and see your present clearly for exactly what it is. Because what you have and do and choose now—today!—is far more important and powerful than anything behind you.
That’s the essence of mindfulness: to consciously recognize, take in, and even luxuriate in the acts, senses, and people we share in each moment. In this present lie so many joys. Accept and embrace these, just as you are learning to accept the more difficult realities. Life becomes so much richer when we live in the present.
- “Consider how to build on what’s right.”
Once you’ve accepted the present and rejected self-criticism, the next step is to expand that view into what you know about yourself. What will ultimately be sustainable for you? If you’re setting a goal, why? Because of some outside standard? Or because you truly feel this change will benefit you? And how does that goal fit in with your present reality?
Your circumstances are not the same as mine or anyone else’s. But I truly believe that in almost anyone’s present, regardless how numerous or serious the difficulties, you can discover positive realities as well: Activities you enjoy, work that’s fulfilling, people who care about you. Leverage these gifts to initiate change.
Reflect and reframe the current situation with a focus on those positives. Have a reasonable view of how your life will transform, and sketch out a plan. Don’t focus on a far-off end goal, but on perfectly doable choices you can make each day. For example, “Don’t show up late anymore” is impossibly ambitious, but “Be ready to leave 15 minutes early today” is motivating, manageable, and immediately rewarding. You can build a new habit on a goal like that.
Don’t forget to be sure you have support, too. Who values you, honestly but without judgment? Enlist that person on your team, ready to cheer your every step forward and encourage you to keep going when you hit speedbumps.
Can you grasp the importance of recognizing your present, not spending lots of time and emotional energy dwelling on the past or worrying about the future? Can you act on the value you place on your “right now” reality? Then you’re ready to move forward, optimizing possibility.
I would encourage you this new year to use reflection more than resolution. No one takes resolutions seriously past January (hence empty gyms in February), but choices based on honest reflection and an awareness of the value of NOW will serve you well any time. In other words, they’re truly sustainable!