Typically around New Year’s, we contemplate how we want to improve ourselves. This desire for change usually surfaces as a resolution to shock our systems from a complacent posture to a zealous fervor. We resolve to lose weight, so we hit the gym every day when we haven’t been to the gym since last January. Or we resolve to read more so we go buy twenty new books, even though last year’s books remain on the shelf with spines intact and dust gently settled atop the never-opened pages.
Resolutions aren’t bad, per se. I think where we go awry is in this sudden change from sitting on our asses night after night to gym rat. Yes, physical health is important and a worthwhile goal, but too much too soon will exhaust you. Before you know it, it will be July and your gym shorts will have been used more for sleeping than for running.
I, too, have set such unrealistic expectations for the forthcoming year, and unsurprisingly found myself floundering by March. Thus, I have acquiesced to the notion that resolutions as typically practiced should go the way of the dodo bird.
For some reason, as I contemplated this necessary demise of the resolution a few weeks ago, I recalled the 1980s and the pithy slogans put forward by Nancy Reagan and Nike: ‘Just Say No’ and ‘Just Do It’. To jog your memory – or for those too young to remember – the former slogan became the way to overcome the drug problem in America. Nancy was everywhere hawking these three words like they were some sort of magic incantation to ward off the evil spirits of drug abuse. Heck, she was even on “Diff’rent Strokes” (look it up, kids). The problem, though, was that while she was doing a media blitz with her mantra, her husband was busy with his blitzkrieg in the never-ending War on Drugs, establishing policies that exacerbated the problem rather than solving it. Needless to say, the ‘Just Say No’ movement was a bust and is now mostly used in a comedic sense.
Unlike the failings of ‘Just Say No’, Nike created a winner of a slogan with ‘Just Do It’ that further propelled it into the upper echelon of not just sports business, but business in general. (Full disclosure, I actually prefer Brooks running shoes.) Part of the genius of the ad is that it didn’t matter what the ‘It’ referred to, Nike would help you with doing it. I also think it’s funny that the slogan is the complete antithesis of the anti-drug one. Imagine if Nancy had switched out ‘Just Say No’ with ‘Just Do It’!
Why did the latter work and the former not? Apart from the fact that it’s always difficult to just say no to a temptation, I think it comes down to action-simplicity. Nike basically gave you the words to utter while you were trying to get up and go for a run, or attempting to lift that last repetition of weights. They are simple words to motivate you toward an action, and it doesn’t matter what that action is. There is an inherent positive vibe present in the statement.
It was during this ’80s flashback pondering the futility of resolutions that I landed on a new way to initiate change. I suppose it’s not really new as it is different. I believe that humans are creatures of habit. Thus, a major problem with resolutions is that we are trying to instantaneously implement a habit that takes time to ingrain in our being. When I trained for a half marathon, even though I was an occasional runner I didn’t go out and start running thirteen miles per day. Instead, I created a manageable training plan that lasted several weeks, gradually building my ability to run longer distances. The plan made it easy to stay on track, because I progressed slowly and methodically toward an end goal.
So here is what I have decided to train my sights on: just doing good. Not doing well, as if I’m worried about the quality of what I’m accomplishing. Rather, it’s about imparting pieces of good in the world. The fact that I am the one doing references that I am only concerned with what is in my control, tempering my expectations. It also points to an active state rather than a passive one. I am not waiting for good to happen to me.
Why does this matter? Every day I walk many steps on this earth, encounter many different people, and make a significant amount of choices and decisions. Nothing that I do today will alleviate the tension on the Korean Peninsula, establish peace between Israel and Palestine, or solve the conflict in Yemen.
But those aren’t the only opportunities for imparting good. I can buy less food, thus creating less waste. I can help a stranger with directions, thus relieving someone of their anxiety in a new city. I can learn about different cultures and learn a new language, thus sowing the seeds of appreciation for others and embracing our underlying humanity.
Focusing on the little ways to do good each day is similar to when I trained for the half marathon: not doing too much too soon, but doing enough to keep stretching my ability and building up the habit inside of me to push more the next day and the next and the next.
This year, I have not made any resolutions. I have made a life decision.
Just. Do. Good. Every. Day.