Hold on a second. Let’s not join the lemmings who screw this up every year.
88% of people fail to achieve their New Year’s Resolutions.
There is a ton of science on this subject so if we want to do New Year’s Resolutions, let’s do them right.
First, stop fantasizing
Do fantasies give you the energy to achieve your goals? Nope.
Positive fantasies allow people to mentally indulge in a desired future. Whereas previous research found that spontaneously generated positive fantasies about the future predict poor achievement… Results indicate that one reason positive fantasies predict poor achievement is because they do not generate energy to pursue the desired future.
You’re getting the reward before you’ve done the work and this kills your motivation. Don’t celebrate on mile 3 of the marathon.
Itching to express something about your resolution? No problem: Write your goals down.
Now it’s time to grit your teeth and get to work? Wrong.
Willpower is limited
Relying on self-control only is a sucker’s bet.
Roy Baumeister, author of the bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, explained in our interview:
When we did the laboratory tests, it consistently turned out that after people exerted self-control in one task and then came to a different self-control task, they would do worse on the second one. It really seemed like they had depleted some energy, some kind of resource in the first test, and didn’t have as much available for the second one. That has been found over and over again, and indeed lots of different laboratories have now shown similar effects, too.
You are not going to muscle through with willpower. You cannot sprint for miles. Change takes planning and strategy.
So what’s the first step?
New Year’s resolution — singular
How to conserve that limited resource of willpower? Conquer one resolution at a time.
This way you exert less willpower and concentrate what you have. Roy recommends this specifically:
Instead of making them all at once, make them in sequence and start with the easiest one. If swearing is the easiest, then do that one first because that will strengthen your willpower and increase your capacity when you move onto the harder ones. If you make this resolution and you actually keep it, your body gets used to exerting self-control and it becomes stronger and more ready to take on another challenge.
What else works? Making something habitual means you don’t have to exert willpower.
You spend 40% of every day on autopilot, just performing habits and it’s not exhausting at all.
Here’s Roy again:
The more you follow a routine, plan in advance, or operate on the basis of habit, the less moment-to-moment strain there is, and the less demand for willpower.
So how do you get the ball rolling when trying to start a new good habit?
Minimum viable effort
It’s okay to be a little lazy at first. Literally, just do the minimum.
The key to new good habits is to do the minimum and be consistent.
Stanford researcher BJ Fogg calls it “Minimum Viable Effort”:
The first step is crucial — keep it tiny. Do not be ambitious yet. That leads to failure.
Consistency is what you’re shooting for here so make the hurdle as low as possible.
In fact, make it so low you’ll feel stupid that you were unable to do something that literally would have taken seconds.
But what if you want to get rid of a bad habit? Well, that’s different…
Replace, not kill
The secret to breaking bad habits is to not try to eliminate them but to replace them.
The first step is awareness. That cigarette doesn’t magically appear in your mouth. Noticing yourself acting habitually is a big first step.
Next is find your trigger. What starts you down the road to that habit? I get stressed and then I eat. I get bored and then I want a cigarette.
Next is replace. What are you going to do now when that trigger arises? Establish something new to take the place of the old habit.
Sounds challenging, right? What can make this easier?
Make a plan
Richard Wiseman did a study of people who achieved their resolutions and found that people who succeeded had a plan.
He sums up the results in under a minute here:
“But planning is hard…”, you say.
Want a powerful but passive way to increase your chance of success? Get ready to move some furniture.
Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.
Change your environment so you don’t have to exert self-control. Throw out the donuts. Hide the booze. This has been shown to be very powerful.
“Whether we’re talking about college students or people in the community, 45% of the behaviors participants listed in their diaries tended to be repeated in the same location almost every day.”
If you can make good habits take 20 seconds less time to perform and bad habits 20 seconds longer, you’ll likely see big changes in your behavior.
Studies of people trying to change their lives, for example by losing weight, found that they are 22 percent more likely to be successful in their efforts if they are open with their family from the start about what they are trying to do.
From Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:
When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real. For most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities— sometimes of just one other person— who make change believable.
But how do we sustain all this?
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over
Ironically, studies show saying “I’ll never do that again” makes you even more likely to do that again.
Expect to fumble.
It’s okay. In Richard Wiseman’s study of people who achieved their goals he realized we should:
Expect to revert to your old habits from time to time. Treat any failure as a temporary set-back rather than a reason to give up altogether.
So you say you’re not going to eat cookies. Then you accidentally eat a cookie. That’s not when the diet is blown.
The diet is blown when you eat the one cookie and say “So much for that resolution” — and then devour the rest of the bag.
Don’t get discouraged.
This post is over but the challenge isn’t.
If Cookie Monster can improve his habits, so can we.
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