Every year, people from cultures across the globe come together to celebrate the end of a year and welcome a new one. Inevitably, millions of people make some type of New Year’s resolution: a promise to themselves to make a positive change in their lives the next year. You might think that such a widely practiced tradition would be a helpful activity, but there’s an uncomfortable truth: they don’t work. A more recent study found as little as 8% of people achieve their resolutions.
You don’t even need the data to believe me on this issue. Quickly breaking New Year’s resolutions has become a meme. Before Covid, you could even track resolutions how quickly people gave up on their resolutions by visiting a gym in January, and then a few weeks later.
It’s easy to blame yourself for failing to meet your resolutions year after year, but it’s not entirely your fault; making a new years resolution is putting yourself at an instant disadvantage, for reasons I will lay out in a bit. Before we get to that, I want to set the groundwork with a simple framework for thinking about your own behaviors and changing them, which you can use to come up with your own personal strategy.
When you want to change behavior, there are 3 things you should think about:
Why New Year’s resolutions fail: Weak Motivation (and other psychological quirks)
Thinking about the three items above, all new year’s resolutions share a common characteristic that makes them very difficult to follow: the motivation.
How to discover your motivation:
The good news is, you likely have much stronger reasons for making a resolution than New Year’s. It’s important to be clear on what your personal motivations actually are for the change you want to make. Going back to the health-related resolution example, why do you want to lose weight? Ask yourself what really matters to you. Do you want to feel confident? Improve your health? These are different motivations that could drive the same behavior, but it’s important that whatever it is, it’s important to you. This is the intrinsic motivation that will keep you going when things get tough.
A helpful exercise is to take whatever motivation pops into your mind first, and ask “why?” Do this a handful of times, until it gets too hard or too abstract. Pretend you want to lose weight to avoid having to spend money on new clothes. Why do you want to save money on clothes? To buy different things? Why? What type of life are you trying to build for yourself with those things? So on and so forth. This activity has a name: It is called the “five whys” technique, and is actually a method for finding the root cause of a problem. Here, it can also be used to figure out your core motivations behind a specific goal.
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A particularly strong type of motivation is what I like to call an “aspiration,” which is often structured in the form of “I want to become <X type of person>.” Compare the strength of “I want to be 20 pounds lighter” to “I want to be a healthy person,” or “I want to write daily” to “I want to be a writer.” When you think in terms of your identity, it’s much easier to motivate yourself to act in accordance with what you imagine that type of person is supposed to be doing. It’s also something that isn’t as vulnerable to change, or fading over time. You might also notice that it’s more difficult to say “I’ve done it, I finished!” This is another perk of having aspirations versus outcome-related “goals,” which allow you to tell yourself the job is complete. Having aspirations versus desired outcomes falls in line with what Simon Sinek might call “playing an infinite game,” where you are not going through life aiming to some arbitrary finish line, but enjoying the journey each step of the way.
Everyone is a little different, but you’ll know you found a good motivation when it feels like something that you could put on a poster or sticky note somewhere in a prominent space in your home or work area, and it will give you a nice boost when you need it. Keep in mind, though, that having motivation isn’t enough to change your behavior.
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Don’t forget to make an action plan
Motivation is critical, but it’s not enough to change your day to day behavior if you have no idea what you’re going to do with it. You need a plan for what actions (tied to that motivation) you will take, and when. Remember the “why” exercise you did earlier? The parallel exercise to that activity is starting with your motivation or aspiration, and asking yourself “how” until you get to really specific details. Your new year’s resolution had a start date, but may not have had a specific schedule. There are a lot of slots that fit into “after Jan 1” which means you have a lot of room to wiggle out of your commitment.
When you start doing this activity, you may notice that there are a collection of actions that you might want or need to take at some point, maybe even a sequence of different actions. This is fine as long as each step is clear and you know where you’re going to start. The starting point is the most important one; don’t fall into the all-or-nothing trap: each change you make should be valuable on its own merits. Sure, doing everything on your list would be swell, but doing something is much better than doing nothing! Sequences can and will change as you make progress, so don’t feel trapped by a plan you drew up before taking any actions. A few tips for identifying the actions you want to take:
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How to be disciplined and build strong habits: set up systems
Not all actions are equally likely to “stick.” It is easy to go to the gym once. It is much harder to exercise times every week for years, through holidays and vacations and days you’re just not feeling it. Being disciplined is not a matter of willpower, but setting up systems that support your habits. Here are some tips to increase your likelihood of success:
A warning about “SMART Goals” You may have heard of SMART: Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. This idea actually came from an article about how to set management goals by G.T. Doran in 1981/reference/ReferencesPapers.aspx?ReferenceID=1459599), and was co-opted by other fields and industries like education, medicine, and psychology. They appear to be effective for setting corporate goals, and some of these adjectives can actually good advice for individuals, when applied to actions.
SMART goals can fall short for people in their personal lives; an easy mistake to make is setting goals for yourself in the form of results you want to achieve, like “lose X pounds in 3 months” or “make X amount of money in 2 years.” There are several reasons I would not recommend these types of goals outside of a business setting:
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