Expat Focus Wellbeing Update January 2023
The New Year is traditionally – in the West, at least – a time to make a fresh start with some new resolutions. But is this realistic if you’re an expat, particularly a new one? You might well be the sort of person who is accustomed to making fresh starts and who already has a lot of resolve. Moreover, some studies show that only around 8% of resolutions actually ‘stick.’ What does the word ‘resolution’ even mean? Is a resolution the same as a goal or a plan, or an intention? We’ll be taking a look at some ideas and how they might apply to you as an expat.
First of all, a resolution involves a commitment to something: there’s some sort of goal at the end of it. For an expat, that might be learning a new language, experimenting with the local cuisine, sorting out vital paperwork such as a residency application or opening a local bank account, or visiting some new sites in your host country. But it’s not enough to decide on your goal – you need a plan in order to achieve it.
For instance, let’s say you’ve arrived in your host nation and decide to kick off the New Year by learning the local language. That looks like a goal – but as it stands, it’s too vague. What do you actually want to achieve in terms of your language learning? To be completely fluent? To be able to read road signs and simple written instructions? To be able to hold a basic conversation with your neighbours? Understanding your own capabilities and assessing how long one of these goals is likely to take is crucial.
For example, although I’m not currently an expat, I decided during lockdown to learn Welsh. I know how difficult Welsh is, with all its variations, and I’m not fantastically gifted linguistically. So I set myself a goal of being able to have a very basic conversation within 18 months, which I have achieved, and becoming reasonably fluent in reading, but not necessarily in speaking, within five years. This seems realistic to me and stops me from becoming discouraged: having a realistic goal is crucial, otherwise there is a tendency to want to become fluent in a shorter time, frustrated when you don’t achieve this, and to give up. You had a goal but your plan let you down.
New York University professor of psychology Peter Gollwitzer reports that from his research, people who plan are three times more likely to achieve a set goal than those who don’t. Deep Work author Cal Newport also takes this approach, maintaining that following a system rather than simply having a goal can help you achieve results. He writes:
“We all suffer from a chronic shortage of will-power. Systems are easier to follow than ambiguous goals. Why? Systems eliminate the need to think or plan, which represent the real choke point in will power exertion.”
Above, we mentioned intentions. These are not the same as resolutions: some writers define an intention as a commitment to ‘be’ rather than to ‘arrive.’ Others, such as psychologist Diana Raab, define them as “something you want to manifest in your life or some guiding principle that you want to live by.”
This works well for learning a language or learning to cook the local cuisine – it’s not just the outcome that’s important, but the process (this brings us back to Newport’s ideas about systems). That process should be productive, challenging, meaningful and fun. So, to clarify, your intention is to learn a new language, your goal is to be able to read a menu within six months, and your plan is to start by learning (for example) the alphabet, some basic words such as greetings and words for food, via an easy-to-use app which you can take out at odd moments at home (Duolingo is an example). Your system for cementing this plan would be, perhaps, to commit to 15 minutes a day, preferably at a set time, since small incremental changes are usually easier to achieve than large sweeping ones.
Make exception policies
Newport also suggests establishing an ‘exception policy.’ This is to stretch your process to cover those times when you simply can’t follow your system: for instance, when you’re travelling and can’t undertake your exercise regime. Put a smaller system in place, such as a 10-minute series of press-ups or yoga in your hotel room. This ‘exception policy’ can be useful, because one of the reasons that people tend to break resolutions is because they break their streak. Falling off the diet wagon for too many days in a row, for example, can make people give up the diet permanently, whereas if you set an exception system in place, this enables you to feel that it’s part of your overall plan, and you’re not ‘failing.’
An exception policy allows you to keep overall control of your plan and process while acknowledging that it’s not always possible in the chaos that sometimes constitutes our lives. And accept that you’re not going to be able to control everything, so be a bit kind on yourself (after all, you hopefully wouldn’t criticise a friend who couldn’t go to the gym for a few days because they suddenly had to fly to Kuala Lumpur on business!).
This kind of intention/goal/plan process is a big deal. Don’t forget to reward yourself as you go along. Set markers (the first time you order a beer in a bar in your new tongue, for instance), and do something nice to celebrate achievements. Incentives are important.
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