A Brief Guide to Better Resolutions

Behavior change is hard. I’ve devoted my professional life to helping people change in ways that improve their life and work and my personal life trying to get better myself. I’ve learned a lot along the way. Tomorrow, January 1st, Resolution Day, is the Super Bowl of behavior change. The day that so many of us vow to do something different or new to more closely align our behavior with our values and goals. I hope the reflections that follow help you be more successful keeping the commitments to yourself that truly matter.

To resolve is to “firmly decide on a course of action.” Often it is to re-solve a problem we’ve tried to solve before. We commit to exercise more, save our money, spend time with our families, quit smoking, lose weight, get organized. These are promises we make to ourselves and sometimes to others that we haven’t kept in the past.

Most New Year’s resolutions are doomed to failure for three reasons:

  1. Making a decision to act is different from action itself. Behavior change doesn’t happen overnight, even when that night is December 31st. It takes time and is a bumpy process.
  2. Resolutions aren’t failure-tolerant. Once we break a promise to ourselves, it’s easy to give up, especially if we haven’t followed through before.
  3. Most resolutions are declarations, not plans. If you want to make a change, you need a plan.

There is a grandness to resolutions that belie the daily work required to actually progress. Once the grandness wears off and we don’t feel like doing what we’ve promised it’s easy to stop. We tell ourselves we’ll get going again tomorrow or next week. But once you stop for too long, you’ve got to start all over again. It doesn’t feel so grand to re-resolve in February and again in April.

A friend of mine has a mantra I really like: “make progress, not promises.” Getting better is the goal, not being perfect. So how can you get better with your resolutions this year? Here are a few places to start:

  1. Break your goal down into behaviors and focus on one small change at a time. If you want to lose weight, is there a pattern that is problematic? For me, my eating habits are good until about 5 pm. Between 5:00–8:00 I can be a disaster. So rather than hit the chips at 5, one habit is to make a healthier snack when I make my lunch so it’s convenient to stay on course. That might shave an hour off my disaster zone. If it gets me to dinner, that one change might be enough to get me through. Once I integrate that behavior, I can add (or subtract) another.
  2. Another way to make change manageable is to create what behavioral scientist BJ Fogg calls “tiny habits.” By connecting the habit you want to develop to an existing behavioral anchor, you greatly increase the likelihood of doing the new thing. In 2012 I wanted to write 750 words a day. It didn’t happen because while it sounded awesome, it’s really hard to actually do. In 2013, the tiny writing habit I created for myself was: after pouring my first cup of coffee, I will free write 10 words. You may be thinking, 10 words?! Talk about a low bar. That’s exactly the point. The tiny habit overrode my internal resistance and once I started writing it wasn’t hard to keep going. I didn’t write every day, but most days I did write, often for 30 minutes or more. Over the course of the year I wrote a lot more with my 10-word writing goal than I did with my 750-word goal. Small is beautiful.
  3. Build it into your schedule. You’ve most likely tried building this habit before, so your good-but-vague intentions are not to be trusted. Be specific: where, when, and how are you going to practice the behavior you want to develop? Add it to your calendar. Seriously. If you can, make it one of the first things you do. Tim Ferriss, Anthony Robbins, and others advocate scripting the first hour of your day to include those activities that make you better—working out, meditating, planning, etc. We get more reactive to other people and circumstances as the day progresses, but that first hour can be ours to own. Do what you care about early and it’s done.
  4. Track your progress in writing. Keep it simple; you don’t need to start a journal. Putting an check-mark on the wall calendar can be enough to keep yourself accountable to yourself.
  5. If at first you don’t succeed, learn and try again. Once a week, take 10–15 minutes to look at what worked and didn’t given your behavioral choices. Don’t beat yourself up: instead of evaluating your week as “good” or “bad” look at it in terms of “did” and “didn’t.” Be as objective and behavioral as you can. We rarely get behavior change right the first time. You can’t manage the past, but you can learn from it. It’s a trial and error process. Be curious. Let what you did last week help you get better next week.

If you care about your goal, every day is Resolution Day. Make it a good one.

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