Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
We know from research that most New Year’s resolutions last only a month or two. Willpower is in short supply. We lose focus. Things change.
My record has been no different. The only one I’ve maintained, for years now, is a weight loss/maintenance scheme in which I weigh myself (for prizes!) on December 31, incentivizing vigilance over indulgence as the year progresses.
So this year, I eschewed the typical year-long New Year’s resolution in order to abstain from 12 activities, one a month, non-accumulative (each experiment ending on the last day of the month), like a dozen back-to-back Lents. I called it “the Year of Abstinence” and chose habits or indulgences that met one of two criteria. They were things I needed to either give up or cut back on, or were things I feared I was dependent on. My plan was to learn something about myself through self-denial.
I invited friends to join me as accountability and community help when it comes to resolutions, and I found the solidarity encouraging even as friends dipped in and out throughout the year. Some created their own monthly resolutions, and we compared notes.
I stayed (mostly) focused all year. Some of the mini-resolutions were fun; most were not; all taught me a little about myself.
If this approach appeals to you, my list below may offer some inspiration. Ultimately, you’ll want to tailor the year to your own goals for self-improvement and self-awareness.
The tradition of giving up alcohol at the start of the year is popular enough to warrant its own moniker: Dry January. A collective detox after higher-than-average indulging during the holidays is healthy, for sure, but also an insight into one’s predilection for drink. I personally didn’t find teetotaling difficult and even discovered some decent non-alcoholic beers (my favorite: Bitburger Drive).
I still had moments of bemoaning my abstinence, like at an office holiday party. And friends who joined me noted how so much of our socialness as a culture is greased by alcohol. That topic may be worthy of its own column.
In the second month of the year, I, like, abstained from saying, like, the word “like” as, like, filler language. You know?
Giving up this verbal kudzu was challenging only in the remembering of it. When I did remember, I nearly completely cut it out. Self-monitoring slowed my speech, but that’s not a bad thing. I also developed a sensitivity, and eventual aversion, to others saying “like,” including my kids, who learned it from me.
Giving up “sweets” immediately raised the existential question: What is a sweet? Is a scone a sweet? Lemonade? Sweetened cereal? Tea with sugar? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich? As the month progressed, the answers to those questions eventually became “no.”
The arbitrary line I drew was no desserts, doughnuts, chocolate, candy, pancakes/waffles (for the syrup), sweetened yogurt, cookies, chocolate croissants, jam, ice cream or dried fruit. Everything else was OK as I wasn’t giving up all sweetness or sugar.
But day after day, the definitional line shifted in a more liberal direction, or maybe “receded” is the right word. New on-the-fence items emerged, such as granola bars, banana bread and muffins. Most of these judgment calls were determined to be acceptable on the situational spot. Same with some items on the original no-fly list, such as jam and dried fruit.
Overall, it wasn’t a huge sacrifice (aided by liberal definitions), but at times, it felt like one. It was hardest when an activity was normally paired with a sweet: watching movies, writing in coffee shops, flying and editing near the office snack table (my old frenemy). But I do have a higher awareness now of how often I am eating dessert in the middle of the day, at breakfast and late at night (see November).
April: Screens + kids
I abstained from being on an electronic device (laptop, smartphone) while in the presence of my children (ages 6 and 10 at the time) and was on them less often with people in general.
Inconvenient at times, this rule was even comical when I would open and shut a computer each time my kids entered and left a room. When I absolutely had to be on (work only) in front of them, I told them what I was doing so they didn’t feel that Facebook was taking me away from them.
It was the most impactful abstention I did all year. Not only did it increase my awareness of how much I was ignoring my kids for screens, I benefited from connecting with them more. And they noticed. The month inspired a parenting advice column and reduced the time I have spent on screens in their presence since then. #win
May: Food (aka fasting)
This was, by far, the most challenging of the abstinences. For two weeks, I did the “5:2 Diet,” which restricts caloric intake two days a week to only 600 calories. That’s about half a burrito – or a lot of math.
I’d slog through fasting days subsisting on calorie-free black coffee and 5-calorie-a-stick gum. And that was luxury compared with the second half of the month, when my friend Dilshad encouraged me to take it to a spiritual plane and join her and 1.2 billion other Muslims for the purifying tradition of Ramadan, which began in the middle of May.
Ramadan fasting, if you’re unfamiliar, prohibits any food or drink between sunrise and sunset, every day, for about a month. No water, coffee or gum for what was 14 hours straight in my part of the world.
It was strange not to put anything in my mouth for that long, but I got used to it. Same for the daily foggy brain, lightheadedness and grumpiness that I experienced. I got up before dawn to eat a hearty breakfast (called suhur), and each night, I set a sunset-timed alarm to start eating again (iftar). Breaking Ramadan is like that scene at the end of “Back to the Future” where Marty starts reappearing and then can play Johnny B. Goode.
I enjoyed learning about Ramadan, mainly from an article Dilshad sent me in which she wrote, “fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the inner soul and free it from harm. It also allows Muslims to practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate.”
It did feel like sacrifice and an exercise in discipline, and less important, I lost a little weight: 5 pounds. I basically made up the day’s lost calories during suhur and iftar. The whole month was eye-opening: to feel real hunger, to work through new sensations and to be keenly aware of when I most want to eat. I don’t think I’ll do this ever again, though, at my wife’s behest. Her nickname for me all month was Mr. Grumpy Pants.
Simply by resuming normal eating patterns, my GDP (grump domestic product) saw month-over-month deflation. But I chose to abstain from grumpiness not just because of the previous month’s accumulation but for the fact that I am too grumpy in general these days.
I set three alarms on my phone to remind myself throughout each day how lucky I am and how little justified I am in being a sourpuss about anything. Friends and family reminded (more like teased) me about my resolution all month, too.
This was my only abstinence that existed solely in my head. All I had to “do” was remind myself of the goal and try to clear away the fog until I found blue sky again. But it was difficult. I developed more control for mild or medium levels of grumpiness, but when it came to four-alarm annoyance, I had little to no control (or didn’t try hard enough).
I also learned a bit more about myself and my predilection toward dark clouds. Triggers for sustained grumpiness for me include: wasting money, wasting time and plans that go awry. Surprisingly, work was not a frequent grump-inducer, as I would have assumed.
Friends who joined me this month added other social media, but I’ve never been a daily Twitter or Instagram user. I enjoy the micro-doses of dopamine my Facebook posts solicit from friends and “friends” as much as anyone (or rather, everyone), but giving that up for month was no sacrifice. I rarely thought about it except to notice the impulse to check in when I had a spare moment. Deleting the app from my phone largely deleted it from my consciousness, but Zuckerberg still came after me with email notifications that so-and-so is saying such-and-such, and if I don’t go to the book of faces I will miss it!
Giving up television wasn’t that hard either (and, as with Facebook, I made a work exception), but eschewing this form of entertainment also seemed silly. I don’t watch a lot of it to begin with, and I use it mainly as a harmless escape.
September: Stuff that doesn’t spark Joy
For 30 days, I gave up … things. It was 30 things to be exact, one item (or group of similar items) a day that I boringly posted in a single Facebook thread. The idea was inspired by listening to the audio version of Marie Kondō’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which discourages keeping anything that doesn’t spark joy. I added a more practical filter, as something may not spark joy but still be useful.
I gave up a variety of items, from socks to medium-size outdated electronics. There were definitely things I would have otherwise held on to for years more, for no reason. But I also don’t think I had any epiphanies or learned anything new about myself. I simply built up my defenestration muscle.
October: Disposable plastic
In September, I asked friends and family for new mini-resolution ideas, and my favorite was environmentally sound, giving up disposable plastic (containers, lids, utensils and the evil plastic straws). I quickly became aware of a level of disposability that extended far beyond plastic. And I realized that I don’t normally use very much disposable plastic (drinking coffee and water from reusable cups, for example), but the times I do use plastic are when it’s very difficult to avoid, i.e. traveling.
November: Eating after dinner
This month, I developed a better awareness of the calories I was cramming in the hour or two before bed. But even though I ate way less at night, I must confess that I formulated an increasingly liberal definition of “dessert” as part of my dinners.
December: Sitting too much
This month, I gave up too much sitting. I started with the intention of limiting myself to four hours of sitting a day, but that wasn’t practical (meetings alone!) and instead focused on greatly increasing my time at work at a standing desk, which decreased workplace sitting by more than half, I estimate. And did more standing while working at home, too. Most of this column was written while standing.
Next year: The year of sustenance
In terms of self-awareness and the fortitude of sticking to a New Year’s resolution all year, this 12-parter was among my most successful. I wasn’t just healthier but more connected to others and aware of my own habitual unconscious behavior. That’s the gold standard for resolutions.
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So I’m going to repeat the experiment another year but in a way that will be less sacrificing and more enjoyable, I think. Every month, I’m going add something instead of taking away. I’m going to infuse my life with more meditation, nature, sleep, gratefulness and eight other month-long embellishments.
Will sustenance be as successful as abstinence? I’ll report back next December!