The Resolutionists


A few years ago I was a consistent user of a fitness facility near my office in Boston – a proud member of the dawn patrol arriving at 6:20 a.m. At that hour only the truly dedicated were present. We were all creatures of habit arriving at the same time, greeting the same attendants, finding our way to the same lockers, using the same machines. We rehearsed the day’s news, weather and sports scores. We knew almost nothing about each other, yet we were a self-forming community of individuals with familiar faces and only first names.

One morning I arrived just after the beginning of a new calendar year. As I approached the front counter something seemed different. A line had formed and there was an unusual amount of conversation in the air. The stack of towels was depleted. The locker room was crowded with faces I did not recognize. Someone had even taken my locker!

I tried to remain calm as I looked for a familiar face. Bob turned to me with a reassuring smile and said, “The resolutionists have arrived.” I dropped my bag in front of a strange locker, focusing on my breathing. As he headed toward the door Bob placed his hand on my shoulder and said quietly, “Don’t worry. They’ll be gone by February.”

Despite my panic that day, I’m convinced the world needs resolutionists. Held captive by the patterns of life, a scheduled disruption is probably a good thing. I appreciate the natural breaks for me that surface during the holiday season and again in the deep part of summer. They force me to stop, take stock and inventory my life. Sometimes I reset my course.

These occasions helped me discover three important lessons about sustaining resolutions over time and making them personal revolutions.

First, significant life changes are often accompanied by an erosion of good habits. Getting married, moving, having children and changing jobs impacts healthy lifestyles. Our transition to the Midwest was such an experience for me. My eating habits deteriorated; exercise was non-existent. I was traveling constantly and running to meetings. It was frustrating. As time passed I began to feel the ill effects. My weight was increasing. My arthritis was intensifying. I was over-medicating. I felt lousy.

As a year passed, I knew something had to change, but I found it hard to disrupt patterns that had formed. My personal time in the summer gave me the opportunity to regroup. I spoke with some experts on nutrition and fitness, along with my doctor. I particularly remember a conversation with the fitness expert who looked me in the eye and said, “You are one stretch away from better fitness.” His perspective was enormously helpful. I didn’t have to conquer the world; I just needed to begin moving again. Likewise, the nutritionist helped me make better choices that fit the realities of my everyday life. Six months later I feel the best I have in years. It all started with one stretch, one choice and a resolve to take a sustainable approach to well-being.

Second, the most important things I’ve accomplished always involved the sustained commitment of others. Anyone who has completed an advanced degree will tell you success came from sheer determination. When I reached the point of writing my dissertation I discovered two of my colleagues, who also had reached that stage, were working on similar areas of research. We formed a group and our advisors encouraged our collective effort. An activity often completed in isolation became a shared experience.

In 1993 we agreed to complete our data collection by Christmas and finish our writing by March 1. We read each other’s drafts and offered encouragement at points of discouragement. My wife, Tammy, played a critical role. Our daughter, Emma, was two years old, and staying on deadline meant I had to work every evening and Saturday. We resolved I would spend time with Emma after my day job each evening and we would eat dinner together. I would work until midnight and take Sundays off. With a collective effort and a lot of support from our families, Siri, Bill and I finished our work on time, defended our dissertations and sat together at commencement.

Third, I’ve learned longer time horizons involving a sustained commitment generally yield the greatest success. Resolutions are positioned for success when the horizon is more than one year. This has less to do with checking boxes and completing “to do” lists, and a lot more to do with constantly preparing for the next stage of development. For this I learned to concentrate less on planning my future against specific short-term goals, and instead focused my energy on preparation along a developmental path. My agenda became the pursuit of new knowledge areas, improved skill sets, wildly different experiences and fresh perspectives. As I set my sights on longer time horizons, I gave myself permission to undertake things that require time. It’s easy to be impatient and avoid commitments that require a sustained effort. Yet when we do, the rewards are even greater than crossing items off the list.

So if you find yourself in a fitness center this month after a long hiatus, embrace change, involve others and set long-term goals. And, by the way, ignore the grumpy guy looking for a locker. He’ll get over it.

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5 responses to “The Resolutionists”

  1. Francis Edgeworth says:

    Very nice article.

  2. Vi Block says:

    You inspired and motivated me!

  3. nice timing as we begin a new semester here at NIACC–something I will remind my students as we begin “all over again!”

  4. Kyle Winward says:

    Dr. Putnam, I very much appreciate your well-placed touches of humor on this entry. I do have to take a well-intentioned exception to the statement that “…significant life changes are often accompanied by an erosion of good habits. Getting married, moving, having children and changing jobs impacts healthy lifestyles.” I too initially had this reaction, e.g., once I married and had children I couldn’t go to the gym as often as I used to, etc. However, after some initial growing pains, I am proof-positive that marriage and children can do so much for the mind, body, and soul. My resulting smarter eating, balancing priorities, and the reduction of bad habits and hangups was the best medicine the doctor could order for me, and I’m sure also for many others. 🙂

    Here is for a very happy New Year to you and your family, and to the Central family!

  5. li shumin says:

    Mark, I like the ending of this entry, embrace change, involve others, and set long term goals. We may all get grumpy when given changes. What can be a better solution than embracing the change?

    I remembered that you missed the Summer Palace when visiting Beijing, the imperial garden where Emperor Guangxu was imprisoned for his intention to change. If Empress Dowager CiXi had adopted this welcoming attitude towards change, the world would probably have seen a way much bigger Japan than a present China.