If you’re you the kind of person who likes to make resolutions for yourself and is determined that 2020 is your year for making those changes, then this post is for you. Today I’m going to share some of my successes and failures in changing habits and give you a few ideas to help make your resolutions a success.
It was very timely for me be the recipient on the local library waitlist for James Clear‘s New York Times Best-Seller Atomic Habits in mid-December. James Clear has made it his life mission to help companies and individuals change their habits. As an avid reader, I look at multiple books and when I find a good one, I like to share it with you. Easy to read, succinct, practical, evidence-based and information that we kind of know already is distilled clearly. Atomic Habits are about making tiny changes over time resulting in new habits.
1. Embody Your Goal
Most of the goals we create for ourselves are outcome-based: I want to lose weight, drink less alcohol, exercise more, change jobs etc. etc. So let’s pick one of those goals and figure out how to embody it. If we reverse-engineer these goals and connect them to the underlying identity we want to have for ourselves, we are much more likely to make a change.
Example Goal: Become More Proficient In French
One of my failed goals is always lurking the background – to become more proficient in French. When I lived in France for a year, I became better at understanding French, but I still struggled to speak it well. Part of me thought it might be nice to continue this learning, but it was never a priority and never happened.
James Clear writes that outcome-based goals are the least successful. We need to find out what it is about our identity that we want to change that is making us choose that goal. This is going to be different for everyone. Why do I want to become a better French speaker?
What I like about this exercise is that it helps me determine if I should even keep this on my resolution list, or just toss it and stop feeling bad about it if I never do it. If you’re struggling with the why in your goal or even choosing which resolution to make a priority, take a look at my earlier blog-post Overwhelmed? 3 Strategies to Filter Out the Noise.
My identity-based goal could be, “I want to be a person who can communicate well in another language, because I love visiting France and would like to be able to converse with ease with my French friends and French people in general”. For someone else, it could be, “I’m a person who likes to challenge myself and keep my mind sharp. I love learning languages so I want to learn French”.
If I want to be a person who wants to communicate well in another language, what choices will I make for myself to get there?
“The biggest barrier to positive change at any level – individual, team, society – is identity conflict. Good habits can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity you will fail to put them into action”. James Clear
2. It’s About Clarity, Not Lack of Motivation
I have always struggled with getting regular exercise unless it’s part of my daily routine. I used to have a job where I walked 30 minutes to work. Boom. 60 minutes of exercise a day without even thinking about it. Then I started my private practice and my built-in work-out plan was toast.
So did I stop exercising because I lack motivation? That’s what I’ve often thought, but I made a change last September and booked my exercise into my schedule and success! Apparently it was lack of clarity.
James Clear’s simple hack for creating clarity: “I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. In retrospect, this is what I had done. If I want to apply this to my goal of learning French I need to do the same.
Example: I will [look up ways to find people to practice French] on [Wednesday January 15 from 1-2pm] [online].
3. Make It Easy – Environment Is Queen
Another factor that made my new work-out regime a success is that I do it in the same building I work. I have my gear in my office, and it’s very easy to go there even on days that I contemplate taking a nap instead. If my exercise class is 30 minutes away during rush hour, even if it’s in my schedule, I’m more likely to self-sabotage on days I feel resistance in going.
Not everyone has a gym or yoga studio in the place they work, but it’s more about connecting exercise to something you’re already doing. What’s on the way to your workplace or close to your home? How can you creatively add it to your life so that’s it’s just part of your schedule?
If I look at my goal for learning French, if the options I find are too expensive or inconvenient, I’m less likely to make it a priority. Maybe I need an online option if I can’t find something close to home or work location.
4. Changing Bad Habits
We all do things that aren’t always the best for our health. We do them because they serve an emotional need. I like sugar and find that a difficult habit to change. Eating a cookie feels like a reward to me and I relax as I eat it. Shaming ourselves or others will often backfire in changing bad habits. A person is smoking a cigarette because it gives them something emotionally – maybe peace, maybe reduction of anxiety, maybe connection to others. James Clear writes about how trying to shame people into eating healthier or stop smoking cigarettes (e.g. cigarette packets with horrible health warnings on them) actually increases our stress and then we’re more likely to continue a bad habit. Human beings are wilely like that.
For bad habits, also follow steps 1-3, but if it’s a habit that you’ve had for a long time, it might take a few extra tricks to help yourself out.
- Reduce your exposure to the bad habit (e.g. don’t have too much sugar in your home, put your cigarettes in a locked box in the freezer, put your phone in a drawer or turn it off)
- Reward yourself (track the money you didn’t spend on alcohol, pot, cigarettes and transfer that money daily or weekly into a separate account for yourself with a specific reward (getting a massage, vacation, an item that you’ve justified not buying because it’s too expensive). What I like about this option is that it doesn’t require you to quit something altogether, but that you can see a real result even reducing your consumption
- (Unabashed Self-promo Alert) See a counsellor/psychotherapist to help you identify what emotional need your bad habit is giving you. Sometimes we have no idea and it’s exhausting to even think about. Sometimes when I try self-reflect on a bad habit, I will find that anything else is more important in that moment. Paying someone else to help you with changing habits can help you get clarity and take action. This also works for hiring coaches and personal trainers too.
- Start with easier goals to reach your hard goal: e.g. if you want to eat less meat, create steps for yourself e.g. A. add 1 more vegetable to every meal B. Find and make 1 new vegetarian-based meal a week C. Increase that to 2 meals a week once I’ve found some recipes that I like etc.
- Use a Habit Tracker App. My husband uses Loop Habit Tracker. Some people like Fit-bits. Both are great at giving you a visual of your progress over the days, months, and year.
“You can break a habit, but you’re unlikely to forget it…and that means that simply resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy…I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment”. James Clear
The book Atomic Habits goes in more depth about habit change, but consider this blog to be congruent with the tip “start with easier goals to reach your hard goal”. Start with these strategies and then get the book if this has whet your appetite for goal change.
- Embody your goal,
- It’s about Clarity, not Motivation,
- Make it easy: Environment is Queen.
What are your goals for 2020?