It is that time of the year again when we dust ourselves off from the year that was and start to focus on the year that will be. Goodbye to the year that took with it the irreplaceable David Bowie, hello 2017.
There is a natural tendency to aim big. Like, REALLY BIG, when we set our goals for the year. And why wouldn’t we? That’s what we are shown is rewarded by society. If you tried to add up all of the TV shows that are based around amazing transformations, you’d get bored before you ran out of shows to tally.
The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeovers, The Block. All hinged on dramatic changes.
The thing about big goals is that they take a lot of motivation. With a head full of steam as you embark on making your New Year’s resolution a reality, you might get through a few weeks before the excitement fades and you drift back towards old habits. Have you ever found that happening? Each year around this time you find yourself setting a similar resolution to last year?
That’s not always the case and I am all for aiming high. But it does tend to reduce the likelihood of following through. In one study I read it suggests that only 8% of people who make resolutions succeed in keeping them.
In 2002, Dr Norcross from the University of Scranton found that 25% of people did not keep their resolutions past one week.
One of the reasons we struggle to keep our hoped-for new behaviours is that we become obsessed with achieving the goal quickly. So we focus on the goal and see that as the sole prize. If the prize takes longer rather sooner to achieve, we tend to lose interest and see our actions as a failure. This mindset quickly derails us and we fall back into familiar patterns of behaviour.
So this year how about you slightly shift your approach? Instead of thinking about losing 15kg (or 20 or 30), focus on becoming the type of person you want to be – someone who is determined, someone who is healthy – and what that looks like as a daily process.
Why? Because your life and the path you follow is essentially the sum of your daily habits.
The most common mistake that people make is to zone in on an event or specific result, rather than putting time into establishing routines.
Here are 3 key steps to making this shift.
1. Aim for Small Consistencies Rather Than a Massive Occasionally
Dream big, but start small.
A professor at Standford University, BJ Fogg, is a master at creating new behaviours through tiny habits. Last time I checked, you can register and do a 5-day session (via email) of the Tiny Habits Program (a program that he developed).
BJ Fogg has found simple to be very powerful. And the best way to start is when your new behaviour meets these criteria:
This is the key to establishing a new, lasting habit in your life. You can expand the habit in later weeks (for example, going from flossing one tooth to all of your teeth). But to begin with, the emphasis is on simplicity.
“After I brush, I will floss one tooth”.
“After I walk out the door to let the dog out, I will look up at the sky”.
“After I pour my morning coffee, I will take 2 mindful breaths”.
“After I wake up and put my feet on the floor, I will do one push-up”.
There are two things to notice about these examples.
One, they are so simple you need next to no motivation to be able to get them done. The easier the behaviour, the less you need to rely on motivation. What’s wrong with motivation? Well, it is not that reliable and can go up and down as easily as the weather changes in the sky. Plus, it often takes a lot of work to sustain motivation.
Two, look at how they are written. They start with an existing habit and end with the new behaviour that you want. This leads me to step 2.
2. The Habit Formula
Small changes in behaviour work best when they are designed to be on a schedule – they come after an existing habit. In this sense, you can use your existing habit as your reminder to practice your new desired action.
BJ Fogg's formula (or recipe as he calls it) for establishing new habits goes a little something like this…
Something you do repeatedly already - followed by the new habit you want to create.
What could be a more reliable cue for a new behaviour than an old habit that you do every day?
Try this – make a list of everything you do in your day, day-in, day-out (for example, get out of bed, brush my teeth, pour a glass of water, go to the toilet).
These are going to make up your new anchor points. Once you have your list, go through it and see which daily behaviour best matches your new desired habit. Want to floss? Use brushing your teeth as a trigger. Want to take a daily probiotic? When you pour your first drink of the morning is the place to start.
Now, when considering the new behaviour, it is important that it matches a quality or way of life that resonates with you.
For me, 2016 has been a year where I have struggled at times to slow down. My mind has often been filled with many, many, many tabs like you see on your internet explorer moments before it freezes or crashes.
So the new habits I am working on currently encourage me to slow down.
After I put the kettle on the stove, I will take 5 slow, mindful breaths.
After I let my dog out to go to the toilet at night, I will look up at the sky.
After I put my son to bed, I will do one yoga sun salutation.
Simple. And relevant to me.
Choose actions that reflect the kind of person you want to be. If future-you looks back on 2017 in 12 months-time, what kind of qualities would make you proud and alive?
3. Reward Yourself
There is a simple 3-step pattern that every habit follows.
Each time you do your new behaviour, it is super important that you celebrate your success. You could say to yourself “I am awesome!”, “what a legend!”, “winning!” or whatever.
This might sound a bit silly or over-the-top, but it works. You need to feel good about what you are doing for it to stick. By developing the ability to give yourself a pat on the back, it makes you want to repeat the small behaviour again and again.
The 3-step pattern of cue, behaviour and reward wasn’t taken off of the back of a cereal box. It has been repeatedly proven over time through scientific experiments to be true. You can see it in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit (he calls it the “Habit Loop”) and even look back in history to the Russian Physiologist Ivan Pavlov and his classical conditioning.
The bottom line is this – rewards are critical for a behaviour to continue. Sure, you will hopefully get a pay-off from the actual behaviour itself (being more mindful, doing more push-ups, taking your dog for a walk). But initially, your own cheer squad is going to be the best place to start.
When declaring victory, there are actually two moments where this is important. The most obvious one is right after you do the behaviour. Common sense tells you that.
The other is when you actually remember to do the behaviour.
When you put the kettle on the stove and remember now is the time to take your two mindful breaths – BOOM! Celebration time. Time for a little dance. Do your best to stir up feelings of awesomeness – practice different phrases, internal versus external dialogue, images and see which ones bring about the greatest sense of accomplishment.
With these ideas, you are now well-equipped to make changes in your life and establish habits for the long-term. Remember that knowledge is useless without action. If you have a goal that really matters to you, now is the time to make it a reality and put it into action. A little step at at time adds up very quickly.
Start small, remember that behaviour change is a skill that you can develop through these steps, and smile. Life doesn’t have to be serious all the time.
“Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never get out alive”.
- Van Wilder.
Cheers to good health and happiness,
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