How to succeed in your New Year’s resolutions ?

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It all began more than 4000 years ago at the ancient Babylonian festival of Akitu. During this 12-day celebration, the Babylonians celebrated the “rebirth of the natural world”. They planted crops, crowned a new king (or reaffirmed the power of the existing king), made promises to their gods and repaid their debts. They believed that if they kept their word, the gods would look favourably on them for the coming year. If they did not, they thought they would fall on the wrong side of their gods. [5]

This tradition continued in ancient Rome. In 153 BC, the Roman Senate declared that the new year would begin on the 1st of January. However, it was not until Julius Caesar took the throne in 49 BC that the calendar was adjusted so that January would fall where it is today.

During these times, New Year’s resolutions were of a moral and religious nature. People reflected on their mistakes of the previous year and took the necessary means to improve. Nowadays, this tradition is more of a secular practice that encompasses a bit of everything. Some of us want to have more money, start a family or lose weight. Others want to quit smoking, stop being too nice or adopt a kitten.

However, not only had people been making resolutions all this time, but they were also breaking them and using them as excuses for bad behaviour before the New Year, much like today.

While about 60% of us make New Year’s resolutions every year, only 8% of us make them [4]. So there is something subtle that we are missing. Something that bridges the gap between those who reach their goals and those who struggle to reach them. Before addressing it, let’s first find out what causes the failure of most New Year’s resolutions.

Why are we failing in our goals?

To illustrate this, let’s take Mark’s most cliched New Year’s resolution this year: “I want to lose 10 kilos and look sexy for the summer.” Most of us have already made this resolution at some point in our lives.

After recovering from his New Year’s Eve frenzy, Mark joined the gym on January 2nd and was forcing himself to go 4-5 times a week, mainly out of guilt because he has spent so much money that he feels he has to use it. A few days later, he feels fatigue invading his body and thinks he needs a hamburger, or ice cream, or an ice cream burger.

It’s February 1st and Mark is already back to his old habits asking himself: “How come all my clothes seem to be shrinking? ”

This has been going on for a while and things are getting worse and worse. Every change he undertakes in his life takes him, at some point, to a lower level than he was before.

Like Mark, most people tend to think that when they make X efforts, they will get Y. They tend to set goals well beyond their abilities or knowledge and then feel frustrated when there is little or no progress towards them. Some of them tend to take “shortcuts” to reach their goals, such as starving themselves to lose weight or cheating to get a good score on a test. Shortcuts that may sabotage their lives in the long term.  [1]

Just as forcing you to work and save for 20 years is unlikely to make you rich, forcing you to go to the gym dozens of times is unlikely to make you lose weight and not gain it back later. Such goals require a lot of effort that you can’t afford to put up with. Eventually, your energy runs out and you return to the same person you were, only this time you feel defeated.

This is because it is better to invest your energy in setting up habits rather than specific goals.

Habits

Most of us don’t usually focus on habits because the goals seem much “sexier” in our minds. We feel more motivated when we think about these goals because there is a clear picture of a certain result in our head that excites us.

Habits, on the other hand, don’t seem as sexy in our heads. They are long-term, repetitive, and have no end point to reach, which makes them boring. The sole purpose of a habit is that the activity never stops. It is simply a daily or weekly repetition that is carried out until muscle memory and brain chemistry come into play and we manage to perform the desired action without realizing it.

With goals, every day you go back to the gym seems more difficult. As for habits, after a certain amount of time, it’s harder not to go to the gym than it is to go. Therefore, they are a better investment of your energy and self-discipline.

It’s good to have goals like “lose 20 kilos by summer“. However, this is not what your mind should be focusing on. Rather, you need to look at the habits behind that goal, such as eating better, walking more often instead of taking a taxi, developing a workout plan, and then focusing on those habits.

The trick is to define your objectives and forget about them in favour of habits.

The art of establishing habits

There are two rules you must remember to succeed in establishing new habits.

Rule number 1: Some habits are better than others

These habits are called “key habits“. These are habits that, once adopted, will have repercussions in other areas of your life, making the acquisition of other desirable habits more natural with less effort. [2]

Unfortunately, researchers have not been as good at saying exactly which habits give the best returns. As a result, you see a lot of silly articles quoting things like “make your bed every day” or “just have more willpower! “because they heard this guy say it once and it sounded smart.

Establishing your habits therefore begins by determining the right habit that initially seems complex, but which eventually has repercussions in other areas of your life. For example, you might decide to lift weights.

In addition to making you stronger, this activity will also provide you with more energy, improve your concentration and mental performance, reduce the effects of aging, increase your metabolism, help your body to better process food, etc. Its benefits will therefore spill over into other areas of your life, facilitating the acquisition of many other positive habits and skills.

These habits, now defined, are now subject to regular practice. These practices will last for some time before being carried out on autopilot. How long does it take for this to happen? This leads us to the second point.

Rule number 2: The time it takes to establish a habit varies from person to person.

In a 2010 study, Lally, a health psychology researcher, and her research team decided to determine how long it actually takes to adopt a habit. [3]

The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person first chose a new habit that they wanted to implement for the next 12 weeks. They then had to report each day whether or not they had adopted the targeted behaviour and to what extent the behaviour was automatic.

At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that it takes, on average, 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. However, the time it takes to establish a new habit can vary considerably depending on the behaviour, the individual and the circumstances.

A person who decides to drink a bottle of water every time they wake up will probably take less time to get into the habit than someone who has to run 30 minutes before dinner. Similarly, a person who decides to do 15 minutes of meditation a day can get into the habit in 30 days, while another person can take 30 more.

In other words, if you want to define your expectations appropriately, define your habit with no deadline and remember that the only purpose of the habit is that the activity never ends.

In addition to this discovery, Lally and her team also found that “missing an opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit-forming process”. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you fail from time to time, it won’t impact the habit formation process.

Initially, you might think that it will take more time and effort to achieve certain goals. But don’t be mistaken, because we seem to have a bias that underestimates what it takes to achieve very large goals in life and overestimates the effort required to undertake a series of smaller goals. In most cases, it is the small victories accumulated over a period of time that lead to the larger victories. When you manage to focus on these small daily victories to the point where you don’t even realize that you have achieved one of your big goals until it has already been surpassed, know that you have achieved the goal of habit.

It’s up to you now.

Notes

  1. Ordóñez, LD, Schweitzer, ME, Galinsky, AD and Bazerman, MH (2009). Goals Gone Wild: The systematic side effects of over-prescribing goals. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 23 (1), 6-16.
  2. Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business. Random house.
  3. Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W. and Wardle, J. (2010), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 40: 998-1009. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674
  4. 10 top New Year’s resolutions for success and happiness in 2019 @bizzwriter https://www.inc.com/peter-economy/10-top-new-years-resolutions-for-success-happiness-in-2019.html
  5. The History of New Year’s Resolutions https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-new-years-resolutions.

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