It’s around this time New Year’s Resolutions start to slip.
Remember counting down to when the clock struck midnight? The second it happened, a burst of fireworks shot into the sky. They exploded into an array of colors, signaling the promises, hopes, and dreams of a new year to come.
But as January slowly crawls towards February, our enthusiasm from that moment wanes. The New Year, with its new hopes, turns into “maybe later”. We begin to back out of our aspirations.
You see this play out so clearly in the gym. Right after the holidays, the gym is jam-packed with runners, cyclists, and weightlifters. Everyone’s exercising! Everyone’s shedding the holiday pounds.
Then one day you walk in and wonder, “Where did everybody go?”
The crowds have left, leaving only the regular gym members.
Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Stick
Every year, you’ll hear resolutions about losing weight, saving money, cutting addictive habits, or spending time with family and friends.
These are all great resolutions to have. And when we say we want to achieve these things, we really mean it. So why don’t they stick?
Here are three key reasons:
- We assume a New Year leads to new beginnings. We believe things will magically change because the old year has ended and the New Year has begun. But really, life will continue as usual unless we proactively bring about that change.
- We want drastic changes. We make resolutions under the expectation of drastic changes in a short period of time. For example, a person who is flabby aspires to have a six-pack. While the goal is admirable, it becomes so daunting that the person gives up prematurely.
- We form vague resolutions. We have these vague ideas of what we want to achieve. Maybe we want to “see the world” or “be our own boss”. Yet we don’t have a clue how to get there.
These reasons all tie down to one thing: A belief that things will naturally fall into place. They’ll happen on their own. We’ll figure it out.
We eventually realize that we need to instigate the change, which turns into an all-or-nothing mindset. Either we take that drastic leap, or we do nothing. And in most cases, what happens?
Even when we finally action, it doesn’t last. Like a dying star, our willpower burns brightly at first. Then, we gradually run out of fuel and our motivation fades. Eventually, it dies completely.
How to Make and Maintain Your Resolutions
“I want to lose 20 pounds this year.”
When someone makes a statement like this, most of us nod our heads and say, “Sounds good”. But will the person actually drop those pounds before the year closes?
Probably not. Here’s why: When we create goals like this, they sound great…but only from a high-level perspective. They don’t quite translate to our everyday lives. So when reality hits, these goals fall flat.
It makes more sense to create an action-based goal. For example, some people might say something like, “I’m going to start running every day.”
“Great,” people say in response, then go about their day.
If you think about it, this statement doesn’t make sense either. How do you run every day when you don’t run at all? How do you run when you don’t even walk?
A couch potato who makes this resolution usually ends up postponing their plans for eternity or burns out from doing too much, too soon.
What if we were to whittle the goal down to something like this: “I’m going to go for a walk once this week”?
For the people watching on the sidelines, they’ll throw their hands up and say, “Walk?! Once a week? What good will that do?!”
The answer: More than you think.
There’s a belief that bigger goals are better. We’re taught to aim high so we can achieve great things. However, when goals get too grandiose, they become unreachable and turn into pipe dreams.
So start small. In fact, start tiny.
First things first, break the inertia. It takes more energy to get something started than to keep it going. If you haven’t done something before and feel hesitant, just try it. Do something small to get started.
For instance, when I’m feeling too tired or lazy to write, my only goal is to open up a document. That’s it. I don’t have to write 1,000 words, create an article from scratch, or anything like that.
Just open a document. If I can do that, then maybe I’ll type in a few points. Then, if I’m up for it, I’ll flesh out those points with some thoughts. And so on.
You don’t need to start off with a large, ambitious goal. In fact, you shouldn’t. Do the exact opposite: start with a small, modest goal.
Stop Remembering to Do Things
When you consciously have to remind yourself to do something, you’re fighting a losing battle. Sooner or later, you end up going for your default choice. Grocery stores know this, so they purposely place the products they want you to buy at eye level.
Set things up so that you’re practically forced to do what you’re supposed to. In my case, I’m supposed to fill out and submit a form at the same time every year. For the second time, I almost forgot until the deadline came up.
Rather than relying on memory (which isn’t too reliable), I decided to set up an autoreminder in my calendar. Every year on the same day, I’ll get a notification telling me to fill out and submit the form.
Autoreminders can help you sign up for an event, get a task done, or send an important message to someone. It’s all part of designing your environment to cater towards your goals. When you put triggers in place, you start doing the things you’re supposed to, and then it becomes a habit.
I remember when I had to use a textbook for an academic course. When the book was stacked underneath another book or sitting across the room, it was difficult for me to even begin my work. To make it as easy as possible to get started, I would leave my textbook at my desk and open at the page needed to continue later on.
These adjustments may seem insignificant and even unimportant. But when you do small things to break the inertia and remove barriers, the difference is astounding. Try it for yourself.
Put in Threats of Pain and Promote With Rewards
Change is painful. It requires shifting directions, thinking up new strategies, and overcoming obstacles.
So when does change happen? It happens when the pain of doing the same thing is greater than the pain of doing something different.
For most people, flossing teeth is a nuisance. We feel that brushing our teeth is a must, but flossing? Maybe when we feel like it. And usually, we are not in the mood to floss.
I was like that. However, a visit to the dentist made me realize that if I didn’t floss daily, it would eventually lead to cavities, which would involve painful visits to the dentist.
Something needed to be done. So, I put up a sign reminding me that not flossing leads to painful cavities. Now, flossing has become second nature.
If you want to get something done, tie your goal to something emotional. Our emotions are more powerful motivators than logic. It’s like when a child touches a hot stovetop. No reasoning from a grown-up is as powerful as the pain of searing heat when the child’s hand touches the stove.
You can also use rewards to push yourself further in your goals. For instance, giving yourself a break after doing a certain amount of work can be effective. Think of something that would be immensely satisfying after performing a task and use that to push you forward.
Instead of Starting Big and Slipping, Start Small and Grow
Change isn’t immediate. The calendar may change from one year to the next, but the difference between December 31 and January 1 is only one day. It’s dangerous to think you can drastically transform your life in such a short period of time.
What is something small, something reasonable, that you can do to get closer to where you want to be? Doing something small today beats doing something massive someday in the future.
Ask yourself: Is your New Year’s resolution actionable? Is it small enough to start doing today? Is it important enough that the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of trying something different? If you can say “yes” to these questions, your resolution is sticky enough for you to achieve.