The New Years Resolution Trap and How To Avoid It

“They always say time changes everything, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – Andy Warhol.

It’s that time of year again when we whisper sweet nothings to ourselves about how things will be different in the new year and that we will change.

We’ve been taught to think like this at this time of year. Partly so because of the marvel of mass marketing and brands trying to leverage this time to forge new habits in consumers that will amount to more dollars for them.

It’s a fun time of year when everyone is reflecting on the year past and looking into their future.

But new years resolutions are a trap.
A resolution is simply “a firm decision to do or not to do something”. A resolution IS a step in the right direction, but it’s also not really a step at all. Oh you want to exercise more in the new year? Big deal, I would bet most all of us have said these things to ourselves only to say the same thing next year round. And this is the trap.

Something else that makes new years resolutions a trap: it’s a busy time of year with family commitments and the stress of travel. It’s silly enough to pick a certain time and wait until then to think about changing something, but even sillier to try and change at a time when we are so busy, tired and potentially stressed.

A friend has a joke about waking up on New Years Day with a hangover. How silly it is to try and change things on day one with a splitting headache and no energy.

How to avoid the trap.
For a long time my only new years resolution has been to avoid the habit of making new years resolutions. But I decided to try something new this year: make change, not resolution.

I’ve been wanting to quit smoking for a long time now. A month ago I had an inclination to make it a new years resolution. Then I thought, why wait until then? Or why just tell myself I’m going to quit?

Wouldn’t it be better if I started 2014 with new habits, rather than simply a resolution to change them? Wouldn’t it feel great if I started the new year already having new habits forming? Would I then have more strength to change even more throughout the new year?

I wanted to try it, and so far even though it’s not the new year yet, it’s been great. I haven’t had a cigarette for 12 days. I’ve been exercising more. I’ve been conscious of my posture and pro-actively doing stretches (I have back pain that can be pretty severe if left unchecked).

How I’ve changed habits.
Firstly, I think The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is required reading for anyone who wants to improve their life. Aside, this book is a must read for anyone building consumer products. Here is a list of methodologies that have helped me:

1. KISS (keep it simple, stupid)
If you make it too hard on yourself it will be. But if you keep it simple it will be more attainable, and you can focus on the one next thing you need to do that matters. Like if you say you want to learn the guitar and be good at it. That’s a daunting task and takes time, and there’s no immediate reward. But if you say ‘today I just need to google local guitar teachers’ you can tick that off in a breeze. Then tomorrow you can call and book your first lesson. That’s all you need to do to start. It also gives you something tangible and concrete to do, rather than something that’s not quantifiable and in the distant future.

If I said to myself I am going to quit smoking that doesn’t actually help me. But if I say “I am going to not buy cigarettes for 10 days and that’s all I need to do” it makes it quantifiable and simple. Now when I have a craving for a cigarette I just tell myself “I’m not going to buy cigarettes for 10 days” and it works.

2. Seek support
Change happens with the help of others. As Charles points out in his book this is the single most important reason why Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful.

Find supportive people you can talk to about what you want to change, and help them help you.

3. Don’t try and change too much
It’s too overwhelming to try and change too much, and you end up falling in a heap.

Pick 3 things you want to change the most. Heck even just pick one. Better to have changed one thing than none, and from small things big things grow.

4. Remove distractions and negative triggers
This isn’t always possible and ideally it’s worth striving to be able to change even when change is hard. An example though is not trying to change at this time of year, when we are busy and tired from traveling.

5. Track and acknowledge change
I just started using Lift for iPhone and recommend it. It lets you list habits you want to form and you can tick them each time you do that habit. I’ve made it a habit to do this and it’s become somewhat of an addiction of wanting to be able to tick them off each day.

6. Go easy on yourself
If you miss a day forgive yourself. Don’t feel guilty about not being perfect or slipping up.

E + R = O
Event plus response equals outcome. You can’t change the event, so all you can control is your response, to realise the outcome you seek.

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