Now that it’s January 1, do you have your resolutions in place? Join a gym, lose that weight, save money, be a better person . . . .
Are New Year’s Resolutions a good thing?
Well, they’ve been around for as long as we know, spanning centuries and cultures, no matter when the new year falls. 4000 years ago ancient Babylonians offered new year’s resolutions to their gods. It is a human tradition that has been around for a long time!
Making intentional change for the better is usually a good thing, and the new year is an obvious time to do it. However, according to research statistics, 45% of us make new year’s resolutions, yet only about 8% of us keep them.
So why the gap and how can this change? Let’s look at the top nine resolutions from last year (2018), according to this Statistica survey:
- Save money
- Get in shape or lose weight
- Have more sex
- Travel more
- Read more books
- Learn a new skill or hobby
- Buy a house
- Quit smoking
- Find love
These are all worthy goals, but what’s wrong with them? It’s not that they aren’t achievable, but they are all too broad and vague. Just because they seem like a good idea and you want them, doesn’t mean they happen.
How to make your resolutions happen
So a resolution always requires a change in behavior. We naturally gravitate to habitual behavior patterns, which tend to be the ones that take the path of least resistance, give the most instant gratification, and don’t involve thinking. This is human nature.
Changing habits – whatever they may be – takes both awareness and conscious effort, until the new behavior becomes habitual or automatic.
There’s an outdated myth that it takes 21 days to change a habit. Rarely is this true. This study showed that the average length of time to change a habit or establish a new one is 66 days. However, in some cases it can be much longer, up to 254 days.
So first comes the awareness and desire to change, and a resolution is formed. Then you need a plan of action, which involves shrinking a big resolution into small concrete action steps. This is key. Make the action steps small enough that you can do them easily, and experience success with each one. Your brain likes to experience “wins!” So set up your steps so that you achieve a series of wins.
Next comes ongoing awareness and reaffirmed commitment to the new changes. This means checking in. This could be reviewing your list of action steps, journaling, or talking with another person (coach, therapist, friend, partner). It could be on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
How long can you expect it to take for a resolution to become a habit? It depends on how big the resolution is! Let’s work through some examples from the above list.
#1. Save money
This was the top resolution in 2018. Now how can you shrink this broad idea into actionable steps? This is perhaps an easy one because money is already very concrete. Saving money may involve shifting your spending habits, setting up ways to put aside money that you don’t touch, or both.
First figure out how much you can realistically save per week, month and year. Think about spending habits you’d like to change. Here’s some examples of breaking down “save money” into concrete action steps:
Action steps to change a spending habit
- Pick an “unnecessary” expense that you can let go of, and designate that money to go into savings. For example, if your Starbucks habit is $6 per day, and you shift your habit to making your own beverage at home, that’s a savings of roughly $35 per week.
- Get the supplies you need to make your special substitute beverage at home and at work.
- Set your banking to move $35 per week into a savings account that is off-limits for spending.
- Check in with your savings each week and enjoy the win!
Action steps to put money aside
- Put _____ dollars into a jar every single day or once per week. Or, set up an automatic daily or weekly transfer from checking to savings.
- Every week or once a month, transfer the total to the bank.
- Check in with your bank balance daily, weekly, or monthly to enjoy the wins as you see your savings increase!
Tips for success:
- Write down your actionable steps somewhere that you can see them easily, every day, for at least 66 days. Make your action steps doable and small.
- Tell your family members or friends so it’s not a secret and you have their support.
- Learn more about saving money and then how to make it grow. Pick up one of David Bach’s books (such as Smart Women Finish Rich). Assign a chapter per day (or week) so that you get through it. Take notes, and reshape your concrete action steps with new ideas that come up.
- Form a book group with friends who have the same resolution. Did you know that social support helps change behaviors?
- Don’t forget to check in! When you check in you get to experience the lovely dopamine hit of a “win” as you see your savings increase.
#2. Get in shape and lose weight
January is the hottest time for gym membership and diet book sales. However, buying a book or joining a gym are still too broad and vague. Getting in shape and losing weight could be broken down into two categories which are still biggies: exercise and eating. These will probably take longer than 66 days for new behaviors to become automatic. However, if you’re giving yourself the whole year, you have plenty of time to make this happen.
Many people like to start with a diet reset (Whole 30 is an example), or an exercise boot camp. These are fine to do, however if you don’t have a plan for after the reset – you may fall back into old habits. Resets and boot camps are not habit changes.
The exercise piece
Getting in shape is way too broad of a goal. Shrink this down into concrete and measurable goals. What specifically does getting in shape mean to you? Here’s some examples:
- Build cardiovascular strength to the point of __________ (sprinting 10 minutes, spinning 30 minutes, swimming 45 minutes).
- Increase flexibility by _________ (stretching 10 minutes per day, doing Feldenkrais, yoga, or Tai Chi twice a week).
- Build muscle strength using _________ (free weights at home, machines at the gym, a weekly Pilates reformer session).
The bottom line here is to first shrink “getting in shape” into smaller more concrete goals, and then make your action steps. Let’s use the goal of building cardiovascular strength by swimming 45 minutes 4 days a week.
Action steps to swimming for cardiovascular strength
- Join a pool.
- Get a bathing suit, swim cap, goggles.
- Find a buddy to go with you if that helps.
- Sign up for lessons if you need them.
- Start with once or twice per week.
- Schedule it on your calendar at regular times every week so you don’t have to think about it.
- Perhaps start with 15 minutes, then build by 5 minutes per week.
- Each time you go, check it off on a chart or your calendar and feel the win!
The eating piece
Simply deciding to eat in order to lose weight is not specific enough. You may be aware that diets usually fail, and the best way to lose weight is by changing behaviors until they become habitual.
Start by shrinking the goal “eat to lose weight” into smaller concrete goals that fit you. Write them down. Here are examples:
Lose ___ pounds over ___ weeks (1/2 to 1 pound a week is realistic) by:
- Eating 3 servings of vegetables per day.
- Limiting foods with added sugar to one per week.
- Cutting back alcohol to 2 days per week, and limit to 1-2 drinks per time.
- Switching out a sugary breakfast for a protein-driven one.
- Eating fresh fruit instead of dried.
- Eating 2 meals a day while sitting at a table instead of on the go.
If you’re not sure which dietary changes to make for weight loss, you can get help from a coach or nutritionist, or well-reviewed books that jive with your dietary sensibilities. Small action steps to make dietary changes often work better than attempting a complete and sudden overhaul of your eating habits! Remember you want easy wins, over and over.
You can then make action steps for any of your smaller concrete goals. Take “eating 3 servings of vegetables” for example. For some people, especially those who don’t like vegetables or don’t tend to eat them, this is huge!
Action steps to eat 3 servings of vegetables per day
- Make a list of vegetables that are appealing. Get ideas by visiting a produce market, or search online “vegetables in the usa.”
- Choose 3 vegetables to start, and buy them.
- Find one way to cook each vegetable that is appealing. You can find this in an internet search, for example “easy delicious ways to eat broccoli.”
- Start with 1 vegetable serving per day until that becomes easy. You can even prepare several servings of a vegetable at once so that you don’t have to do it every single day. Remember, easy wins!
- Once you have mastered one way to prepare 3 vegetables, add another vegetable. You could add one per week until you have a nice array to choose from.
After you have completed step 5, you can build to a second serving per day, then a third. You can also build preparation methods to three methods per vegetable for example. And of course you may start combining different vegetables in your preparations. This is just one example of turning this goal into easy action wins.
Tips for success:
- Get help with exercise! Use a trainer or a physical therapist, or go to a class for group motivation.
- SCHEDULE exercise until it becomes habitual.
- Team up with a friend if that works better.
- Get help with eating! See a nutritionist or coach, follow a sensible program, or get ideas from a book.
- Tell your family and friends for supportive accountability.
- Make cooking fun: take a class, pick up new recipes, involve the family.
In a nutshell
You can apply these strategies to any resolution you make, and turn your resolution from big and vague and impossible into something you can easily do and own!
- First, the decision to change.
- Then, shrink the idea into action steps that are concrete, measurable, and can be scheduled. Make reasonable action steps. Don’t set yourself up for failure by expecting too much change at once. Easy changes mean easy wins.
- Next, get support from your people as you put these steps into action.
- Check in with your resolutions on a daily (if needed) or weekly basis to re-affirm or tweak if needed. Note your progress, and revel in the wins.
- Remember, it could take 66 days or longer to make your new action step an automatic habit. Give yourself time.
- Above all, allow for setbacks. Change is not a linear path towards perfection. We never learn anything if we don’t make mistakes. Be human and kind to yourself.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on your resolution process!