- You are not failing if that action-goal you started isn't doable anymore.
- Being curious about your body’s reactions and mind’s thoughts can empower real change.
- Actions don’t have to be life-altering; they can be as simple as being more aware of your responses.
Each January, my favorite hiking trail gets flooded with people fulfilling their New Year’s resolutions to get fit. And shortly after, the crowds disappear. Every year this happens—partly because sudden lifestyle and behavioral changes are hard to maintain, especially if there aren't immediate rewards. But I think it's more likely because, as humans, we tend to miss the deeper, more hidden targets that our goals are supposed to hit.
What if the quiet action of “just noticing” could do a better job of getting you closer to reaching your goal than any labor-intensive action could? Let's take two common goals:
- Losing weight
- Finding a partner
"I'm going to lose weight."
Many of us think something is an empowering action, but it doesn’t do what we want. Then we believe we failed. Yes, this includes me.
I used to resolve to do this to feel better about myself. I used to feel super awkward in social settings, and I figured more confidence could help. Our diet-minded society teaches that weight, health, and body image are means to positive esteem, relationships, social connections, etc. So how could it not help?
I’d bust it at the gym. However, I’d still not feel better about myself. My level of comfort during social interactions did not improve either.
Then, one day, I wasn’t purposely trying to “just notice,” but I recall a crystal-clear moment. I was with women who shared a common interest—kind of a “club-type” setting. I hoped the mutual hobby would provide good conversations and a less awkward, more satisfying social experience for me. However, about an hour into probably the fourth hangout, I suddenly heard my brain scream from within: “Stop it about the cleanse! I don’t like your gossip! I’m so freaking bored!”
Curiosity about that loud thought made me realize that I felt awful in their company each time we met. They weren't bad people—just not my people. So, I quit seeing them and had space to try something else. (Honestly, they were probably happy when I quit, too. I'm pretty sure they could feel my discomfort around them.)
Food, weight, and gossip are common conversations in our society. So, that's been a bit tricky to maneuver. But eventually, I found my groups of humans who talk mostly about things that engage a part of my mind and heart and feel uplifting to me.
Noticing and curiosity allowed me to discover this: Losing weight wasn’t the change I needed to feel better socially. Without that quiet noticing, I could have kept surrounding myself with relationships that tanked my self-esteem.
"I want to find a partner."
Since it comes up often in my therapy room, let’s talk about loneliness and a common approach to fixing it: “Go on more dates.” While, statistically, your chances of finding a partner would improve by going out more, let’s be thoughtful about it.
First, notice if your mood shifts when thinking about, talking to, or going out with a potential partner. Why might the change have happened? Lead with curiosity and not self-judgment.
Through just noticing and curiosity, you could discover, for example, that the type of partner who catches your interest doesn’t serve your self-esteem or wellness. Or perhaps you're looking for dates in the wrong places. Like, if you want to develop a long-term relationship, choosing a dating site known for "hookups" and "cheating" may leave you feeling even more lonely.
How to “just notice"
"Noticing" allows space to find things that "doing" keeps you too busy to discover. Here are four steps to get started.
1. When your mood or outlook shifts in a direction you don’t like, pause. Pay attention. Even if you struggle to catch downward moods before they hit rock bottom, sensations in the body and thoughts you notice may give you clues about what you're feeling and why. Or, if you hear a loud thought as I did, take it in.
2. Then lead with curiosity and not self-judgment. Why did that happen? Please don’t pressure yourself to get anything “right.” Just notice and wonder about what might be going on for you.
3. Try to jot down or voice memo what you notice. Keep a record. It can be easier to spot commonalities that way.
4. Finally, after enough “data” is gathered from your curiosity, check for patterns. Be your own data-mining scientist. If you find there's an easy pattern to break, great: Experiment. Notice what seems uplifting (or at least less uncomfortable), when you feel how you want to feel, and who you feel good around. At this point, yes, actively "do" more of what's rewarding and gives you the sense you're on the path towards your ultimate goal.
On the other hand, if you discover you’re stuck repeating unhealthy mood or self-esteem-tanking patterns, you might want to bring on a therapist. A good one can help speed up your process of discovery and stop you from unnecessary shame spirals along the way. Also, if you determine that it’s in your best interest to let go of a major goal (scientists term this process “goal disengagement”), you could benefit from support.
The quiet-action approach of “just noticing” requires patience and may not seem active or actionable enough for some. OK. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "action" is "the performance of some activity or deed, typically to achieve an objective.” Therefore, if your aim is to achieve feeling better (e.g., better moods, relationships, self-esteem, etc.), then noticing and curiosity are most certainly enough action to make a positive difference.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Russo, F. (2022, December 28). The best New Year’s resolution might be to just let go of an unfulfilled life goal: Leaving aside a cherished objective may benefit psychological and even physical health. Scientific American.