If Your Resolutions Didn’t Last Until February, This Is For You
FlowStations, February 2019
It’s the same story every year: you say to yourself, “this is my year! The year I get my life together, the year I exercise more, the year I read more books and make more art and start that business I’ve always talked about.” You dive into the year full of motivation and optimism, and it feels like this ambition is truly the “new you.”
But then every year, by the time February rolls around, you run out of steam. Rather than taking a new approach, you come up with excuses, and before you know it you’re back to your old habits.
Sound familiar? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Why We Fail to Achieve our Goals
If you’re like most people, this story will repeat, year after year, until you consider giving up on improving your life altogether. But you don’t want to be like most people. If you did, you wouldn’t be on this website, and you wouldn’t be reading about this topic. The difference here is that you actually care enough to seek out solutions.
You want to be more creative, healthier, and more productive. These are admirable intentions, but you won’t achieve much by blindly throwing yourself at a goal (or worse, multiple goals at once). This is a recipe for burnout, because humans are not wired this way. To simplify some complex evolutionary science, our brains discourage us from the activities that expend more energy than we’re accustomed to using. The trick then, is to be smarter than our habits.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Willpower and motivation are unpredictable and easily depleted, meaning they’re fickle and unreliable. The secret of creative people who seem to have amazing willpower, who seem so driven, is that they’ve found ways to trick themselves into working when they don’t want to. They’ve learned to outsmart their instincts.
Are these people just wired differently than us? Not really. Anyone can teach themselves these tricks, and some of the most successful people alive only accomplish so much because they figured out how to trick the lazy part of their brain. They’ve learned not to rely on motivation or willpower alone, but to harness the power of habits and incremental daily progress.
As the late Anthony Bourdain (celebrity chef, author, travel documentarian) said:
“I understand there's a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid and outwit that guy.”
Start Small and Do It All
Below are some of the most effective strategies for building better habits. To help you remember these concepts, consider writing them down in a notebook. Writing by hand is shown to increase memory of a lesson more than typing notes (1), and helps tell your brain that this is something that matters to you. (Don’t have a notebook? You have options).
So how do we stop burning out, and actually get things done?
Replace Goals with Systems
Don’t just work blindly toward a goal: build the habits that will get you there. If your goal is to finish a dozen art pieces this year, or to make a profitable business, or to get six-pack abs, that’s awesome. But how will you get there? And what happens once you do?
While pushing towards a goal can be unpleasant, a system becomes easy and enjoyable to continue, even after it helps you accomplish your goals. You probably know someone who worked hard and made sacrifices for a short time to get a “beach body,” only to go back to poor eating and exercise habits immediately after, then have to go through the same stress again next time. Why do that to yourself?
Instead, move toward your goal with gradual changes in lifestyle. if you want to finish more paintings, shift your goal to painting every day. If you want to start a business, break down the necessary steps into things you can accomplish each month, each week, and each day. Aim to achieve small daily or weekly targets, with a measurable way to track progress, and the larger accomplishments will come over time.
Get Specific on Timing
Poor planning leads to poor execution. So get a planner, write down your plans, and be specific. (This planner doesn’t need to be anything fancy, but if you prefer high-quality planners you can find them here). Now, say you want to write a blog post this week. Don’t scribble something vague like “write blog post.” Instead, try the Date/Time/Location method. This is exactly what it sounds like:
As an example, you could write “this Saturday at 10am, I will work on this blog post for at least 1 hour at the local cafe.” Studies show people who plan this way are 2-3x more likely to follow through, compared to people who don’t make concrete plans.
If you’re like me though, your daily schedule doesn’t follow the clock too closely. So what works just as well is to tack on new habits to your current daily routine, like “after I get finish work, I will go to the gym” or “when I finish breakfast, I will work on my personal project at my desk.”
One Thing at a Time
Committing to too much at once is a recipe for burnout. Avoid this, no matter how tempting it seems, or however much motivation you think you have in the beginning. You will make more progress by focusing on one thing at a time.
After a while, a new habit becomes automatic, and easy to follow. As a it begins to feel like a natural part of your day, only then does it come time to introduce the next habit. This process may only take a month, or it may take two or three. Be patient.
Make it Easy to Start.
I used to struggle to start writing. I told myself I didn’t have the energy that day, or that I didn’t know what to write about. I made excuses. Then I heard of the “Just 5 Minutes” principle: no matter what your task, tell yourself you only need to do a few minutes of it.
One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of new habits isn’t the work itself: it’s starting. Your brain’s resistance comes from the idea that this new activity will be difficult or boring. So you can trick yourself by saying “okay, I’ll only do a few minutes of it and see how I feel.” Suddenly it becomes easy. Manageable. And you find that once you start, it’s easier to keep going.
So next time you feel too tired to sit down and create, remember this point. Tell yourself “I’ll commit to five minutes.” After five minutes, another ten or twenty won’t seem like much more.
Avoid “Zero Days”
Think of this rule as the longer-term structure for the Just 5 Minutes principle: every day, do at least something. There should be no days when you put in zero work toward your goal.
If that goal is to exercise daily for instance, and you feel you can’t, get down and do five pushups. Just like that, you’ve exercised today. If your goal is to write every day, sit down and write a paragraph. It doesn’t even have to be good.
It’s better to do something imperfectly than do nothing at all, and this rule helps you maintain your habits, even when your motivation drops.
Design Your Environment for Success
Create cues in your environment that remind you of your desired habits. Want to write more? Put your notebook where you’ll see it frequently so you remember to write. Want to exercise more? Put your workout clothes by your bed so you notice them right when you wake up. Trying to illustrate more often? Place your art supplies in the place you spend the most leisure time.
On the inverse, you can use this model to end bad habits as well. If you want to eat healthier, don’t keep junk food or booze around the house, or at very least put it out of sight. If you want to stop Netflix binging so you can be productive, don’t work with a TV around (or if you watch on your computer, consider using a website blocker to make it more difficult to access in certain parts of the day).
In short: remove distractions and obstacles that get in the way of good habits, or any barriers that add effort to the process. Make good habits as easy as possible by removing excuses to start. Then, create obstacles or small hassles to make bad habits more difficult.
Lastly, Prepare for Failures
We’re human, and therefore flawed. Mistakes happen. Slipping is inevitable, even for the best of us. Every so often (especially early on) you may miss a day. Maybe something gets in the way, maybe you just couldn’t muster the energy to even start. It happens.
The important thing to focus on is not whether or not you fail, but how quickly you get moving again. Believe it or not, a short lapse won’t have much effect on a new habit, so long as you remember to get back on track as soon as possible.
A good rule of thumb: it’s okay to miss a day sometimes, but don’t miss two in a row. Forgive yourself, and keep working at it the next day.