Somewhere close to 90% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned before March ends. We humans don’t have a very good track record of doing the things we want to if they are different from what we are doing now.
It’s not because we are bad people, lack integrity, lied about it, didn’t want it bad enough, or lacked self-control. While it’s possible that some of these things played a role, we don’t fail to make behavior changes at an alarming rate, just because we are flawed people. Believing that if we were better, we would make change happen easier is not helpful along our path to change either. If we spend time wishing we were better somehow, we waste that time and energy and still have no movement toward our goals. What’s even worse, we begin to believe that because of our flaws we are incapable of the changes we want to make.
That’s a lot of mental drama that does nothing to make our world different in any way.
The reason we don’t achieve changes in our behavior, or our outcomes is that we have a flawed process, not because we are flawed people. It’s probably more accurate to say that we execute the first part of the process well and fail to understand or execute the second part.
Think of this simple process as you set goals or make resolutions this year. Try to focus on the process instead of the mental self-abuse we dish out to ourselves often as we try to make changes and struggle along the way.
Step 1 - Goals
Consider the future you want and why it’s important to you. Write down a detailed account of your future in ways that help you understand it, envision it and connect to it. Write down what you want and why it’s important to you. Focus on this future state instead of all the reasons that you don’t have it, should have already had it, won’t ever have it, aren’t good enough to have it, or the circumstances that will never let you have it. Those things are wasted mental energy and effort with zero value to your future. Just write, think, visualize, and connect to those thoughts and dreams.
Step 2 - Habits
Now think about the tiny, beginning habits that, if you had them, would help you get to those goals. Once again, focus on the habits, not all the reasons you can’t create them for yourself. Let’s take something like exercise because it’s such a common resolution. Let’s say as you thought about your future you wanted to be 20 pounds lighter and look better on the beach. Again, a common kind of resolution. What habits would move you in that direction? Do not think about getting all the way there as you consider this, just the habits that would get you started. Would doing 10 pushups or sit-ups each day move you in that direction? Would taking a 20-minute walk each day move you in that direction? Would planning meals every week move you in that direction?
Just think about the little things at first. Of course, working out at the gym for an hour a day would move you in that direction, but it’s too big. Think of the little daily things that would help but are small enough that there is very little barrier to execution. Almost all of us could walk for 10 minutes in one direction and repeat that regularly. Obviously you have to walk the 10 additional minutes back, but don’t even focus on that, just the starting habits that would lead to an incrementally better future.
Step 3 - Practice
Now move away from the bigger picture of a healthier, more fit you and just focus your energy on walking 10 minutes in one direction each morning. Notice that our brains get in the way here with all the reasons 10 minutes isn’t enough, or it’s too cold, or I don’t have time, or I need my sleep. When this happens, refocus on the practice. Use habit-focused, positive questions like, “what’s my first step to walking 10 minutes in one direction this morning?” Or “what do I need to wear, and how can I take those first 20 steps this morning that get me started?” The secret is to get started. We know that once we overcome oppositional thinking in the brain with some tiny action, it diminishes for us and momentum toward the new action starts to increase. Leverage this with the smallest goals you need. If you just need to go out and walk for 2 minutes, and that is where you can start with less oppositional thinking, then just practice that habit. Keep in mind that all we care about is practicing the repetitions. We want this starter habit to be like brushing our teeth or tying our shoes. Once it’s there, we can build on it with longer times, and more momentum.
Try breaking your resolutions down into these steps as you tackle a new year or any change you want to make. Our inner dialogue is designed to sabotage our changes. Our brain thinks status quo is safer for us, so we simply must work in new ways to hack that little evolutionary function we have. We aren’t bad people. We aren’t failures. We aren’t weak. We aren’t less gifted, talented, or capable. We are just human. And this is how humans change.