The ancient Babylonians believed that what a person does on the first day of the new year will affect what they do throughout the year. The tradition of New Year's Day resolutions can be traced to this belief.
Nearly half the population of the United States makes at least one New Year's Day resolution. But statistics show that almost 97 percent of New Year's resolutions are never fulfilled.
Mark Twain wrote that "New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, friendly calls and humbug resolutions." Oscar Wilde once said that "A New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other."
It's not that people don't know how to set a goal. It's that they have a hard time keeping it.
Goal experts maintain that there are two key factors in our ability to achieve our goal. The first is how specific it is -- the simpler and more specific, the better. Goals like "do my best" or "try harder to [action item]" don't work. The second is making the goal constantly visible, and thus front of mind. If you're trying to lose weight, a sticky note on the frig telling you to "lose 10 pounds by February" is a fairly effective reminder.
I know from experience that there's a third: having a bit of good fortune -- good 'ole luck -- on your side. And there's a item I keep in my repertoire at all times that helps achieve all three: a Daruma doll.
In Japanese culture, a Daruma doll is given to someone who is taking on a new challenge or direction, beginning a new venture, making a transition or setting a significant goal. At the start of the endeavor, one makes a wish and paints in one eye, usually the doll’s left. The other eye is painted when the goal is successfully attained. You will often see a large Daruma doll on display in a sushi restaurant, signifying good fortune to the owner.
A Daruma doll is a strange-looking, oddly-shaped figurine. It is legless, armless, bottom-heavy, with a roly-poly face, fierce scowl and daunting black beard. The whites of the eyes of a brand new Daruma doll are blank, pupil-less. Surrounding the face is a red ceremonial hood with gold trim (see picture above). When you try to tip or topple a well-made Daruma doll, it bounces back to regain its balance, symbolizing an undaunted spirit and recovery from misfortune.
The genesis of the tradition is based on the story of Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk known as Daruma, who lived in the fifth century, and who founded Zen Buddhism. He’s the father of Zen, in a way. As the legend goes, Daruma lost the use of his arms, legs, and eyesight after sitting motionless with eyes closed for eight years in a cave, engaged in deep, mindful meditation, seeking enlightenment. He was successful. Daruma achieved the ultimate balance and clarity.
The doll in his likeness is a symbol of good luck and protection in Japan.
It works. It worked for dozens of kaizen (continuous improvement) and jishuken (management level improvement) projects undertaken by teams I coached in Toyota's luxury division, Lexus. It worked for the women's lacrosse team at Loyola College in Maryland, as they won every game and defeated the Japanese National Team during the International Friendship and Freedom Games in June (the team learned about Daruma dolls on their trip). And it worked for my eight-year old daughter, as she attempted a roundoff back handspring in her gymnastics competition. (You can watch a video of her talking about it here.)
And it will work for you. Good luck with your 2011 New Year's resolutions, and have a Happy New Year!
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change. You can find him on Facebook here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.