When the earth (roughly) completes its rotation of sun by some arbitrary point tonight, the Western world finds an opportunity to reset. Reset the year, the clocks, the wrongs and plan for the upcoming ‘tour de sun’. We take this opportunity to pause and set New Year’s Resolutions. Alas, if only they were effective. New Year Resolutions may be fantastic for gym owners and diet-sellers, but they rarely achieve what they set out to do. This year, I have one resolution: don’t set a resolution; set a habit.
Resolutions are dumb
A resolution is defined as a firm decision to do or not to do something. By contrast, a habit is a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. If we want a change to last for a long time, habits are a better way to go about it.
Resolutions are set with the intent of achieving a goal, but they ignore the process that leads to it. They tend to be simplistic, ‘go vegetarian for a term’ or ‘go to the gym’, which underlies the lack of thought that go into them. Goals should be SMART, with timing, using temporal landmarks, a part of routine and with internal and external motivation.
‘If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail’. Furthermore, I would add, ‘If you fail to prepare for when you fail, you prepare to fail’.
Resolutions are also often binary in their judgement of success, ‘to do or not to do’. Your willpower has to carry you across the whole year without fail! This leaves little room for aberrations. One late-night beef burger is enough to derail the progress into ‘failure’ and demotivated, why continue on when you have failed? Lastly, change is easier when it is gradual. A resolution tends to be a one-off change at one point. The track record of resolutions is pathetic – a third of resolutions don’t make it past January (source).
Resolutions don’t inspire the self-discipline we seek in ourselves because they ignore our humanity: eternally flawed and yet eternally hopeful. Habits are more forgiving and fruitful, they can even be fun! Habits are not built over night, they grow gradually over time. They are specific and regular. When you establish them, they become a part of the routine rather than a chore. Here is my personal guide to setting a habit, not a resolution.
Look forward before you look back
We think of the future as ahead of us and the past behind us but in some cultures like the Aymara in the Andes, logically, the future lies where you cannot see it, behind you, and the past where you can, in front of you. Before we move to the future, we should look at what has happened in the past. The best reason we will fail with our new habit lies right in front of us: why we have failed before. As such, look back on 2018 (as well as previous years) and think about what resolutions you set yourself. Where did they fall apart and how could you mitigated this? Where did they succeed? What could have worked differently? What was a unique excuse vs a recurring one? In addition, I would argue, regret these failures, Don’t Embellish your failures, Regret them, to prevent the next.
This is also a good opportunity to identify habits you would want to carry forward or introduce. Tim Ferris offers a ‘past-year review’ guide with the following:
Before embarking on this project, we want to make sure they are the right ones. Prior to this year, I had chosen resolutions on the basis of what was top of my mind. There was little strategy or prioritizing and as a result, lacking in reasoning and motivation. To give you an idea, when I returned to Nairobi in late October, I set the following goals for the end of 2018:
So before we decide on habits, we first need a sense of what can be introduced. Look at your schedule to establish how much time you have free or could be made free (the solution to fewer friends is more habits!) in a week. This might involve waking a bit earlier or blocking off time on a few evenings or weekend slots. With this, you have the space for your new habits.
Second, try listing out all the potential new skills, learnings, practice or tasks you wish to make a habit. Ever dreamed to learn the guitar? Want to speak a new language? Detail how much of a time commitment each of these will realistically take. Third, rank them as to their importance. Which would add the most to your life? Get you closer to your medium-term goals? Needs to be accomplished soon?
Fourth, take these new habits and find a nice balance. Change is good but too much of it can be exhausting. The more varied, the more interesting and less taxing. I try to select one habit of routine, task and learning. In my case, this was meditation, cleaning up my documentation and notes and learning Swahili. I am still experimenting but one could consider something daily, weekly and monthly on self-improvement, interpersonal improvement and just fun. Look at your habits, do any habits complement each other? Will they be compatible in your schedule? Fit the puzzles pieces together and voila, you have your new habits!
So now you hopefully have a habit or few in mind and we want to add a bit more internal and external motivation. The NY Times have a nice list here but here are some ideas I practice:
- A Good why – Think about a clear justification for how this habit will link into the big picture. What will this help achieve? Why is this important to you? Who cares about this or will this help?
- Make it concrete – Write down such a commitment and hang it up somewhere you will see it often.
- Don’t break the chain – Keep a log of it to see your progress and as Jerry Seinfeld does, when you start a chain of x’s, don’t break the chain.
- Start small – I put small, seemingly needless, tasks onto my to-do list. This includes things like ‘clip nails, send x a message, call y’. The point is that completing these are easy but in doing so, you build productive momentum and once you are on a roll…
- Peer-pressure is your friend – Do you know a friend who would be interested in the same? Can you publicly commit to this? I use the app Habit Share to keep track with friends.
- Punish bad behaviour – This depends on your own preferences and maybe social failure is enough. One option is to commit to donate to an ‘anti-charity’, an organization you abhor, if you fail. More here.
- Pavlov’s dog – Equally, if not more, important to punishment is rewards for good behaviour. We may think ourselves superior to Pavlov’s dog but we are animals as well. Have clear rewards for getting to landmarks along the route, maybe on the 10th gym session or 2nd month you get chocolate.
We have the habit and the motivation; how will we achieve it? There are many lists out there, many of which may be better and more informed, but here are the ones I adopt.
Be SMART: This may sound like school, but SMART goals are a useful framework: Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon, Realistic and Time-Based. A good and relevant NY Times piece.
Timing: A habit is not bound by a year, break it into smaller chunks which are easier to manage. Your plan may be vegan for a year but have it in quarters or maybe work towards going vegan up to your birthday and from that point, you move forward. If you slip up, you would have already achieved smaller goals to show you can do it and build on. Use these landmarks to reset if you have stumbled.
Temporal landmarks: Humans love to use ‘temporal landmarks’ like the end of the year to demarcate the passage of time and create mental accounting periods. These days are equally as arbitrary as any other but for the fact that they are less arbitrary in their meaning to us. Consider the end of a decade. In Daniel Pink’s book ‘When’, he details how across the entire lifespan, the age at which people were most likely to run their first marathon was 29. Twenty-nine-year-olds were about twice as likely to run a marathon as 28-year-olds or 30-year-olds. Use these points, end of a month or start of a term, as checkpoints to assess and reset. You don’t have to wait till the end of the year to start something you stopped in January!
Pre-empt failure: You will probably slip up at some point so try and pre-empt the reasons. Visualize the first potential failure, maybe finding bacon chips around the house irresistible, and finding ways to mitigate it, ask your flatmate to store them in their room or out of sight.
Routine: The more routine a habit, the less of a task it will feel. You don’t think about brushing your teeth but at some point, and far too recently for me, it felt like a chore. Ideally, fit it in the same time of day or day of the week. I find the mornings are the only time I control and have therefore shifted my habits to an hour slot before I head to work.
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” – W. H. Auden
Persist: The beauty with a habit is that it gets easier the more you do it. This research from UCL shows that it takes on average 2 months for something to become a habit and six months for it to become part of your personality. It feels weird not to brush your teeth!
A Tentative Conclusion
Tomorrow begins the new year and the old you with new habits to try. Its exciting, its daunting. However, little by little and step by step, with structure, failure and persistence, your new routine, task or learning will become a habit. And as it becomes a habit, you will seek the next challenge. Thank you for reading my blog in 2018 and see you in 2019!