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Psychology : Applied

How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolve: The short-term approach to long-term transformation.

Updated: Apr 5


A man running on a long road.

 

When I was a kid there was nothing I looked forward to more than the annual visits to my favourite Aunt Ruth and her family. Despite our emotional closeness, the visits were seldom because they lived in Colorado, nearly 2,000 miles from our home in Delaware. My Aunt Ruth seemed to be a world away from the where I lived.


A family portrait - that's me with blonde hair in the foreground and Aunt Ruth just behind in white.
A family portrait - that's me with blonde hair in the foreground and Aunt Ruth just behind in white.

I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood right out of Edward Scissorhands, little houses that all pretty much looked the same except for the colour. Next door to us was the Truitt’s house (blue), and next door to them was the James’s (yellow). Five houses up and across the street the other way was where my very best friend Bobby lived.

 

One day, when walking to Bobby’s house, I had a funny realisation. I passed my next-door neighbour's house, and then the house next to that. By the time I passed the third house, I knew Bobby was just two more away – and then I thought of my Aunt Ruth.


While Aunt Ruth seemed so very far away, she was also really just just next door, to the next door, to the next door, etc. I imagined the world as being one long suburban street, and if I just went from one house to the next, I’d eventually end up at Aunt Ruth’s.

 

Big Change Is Only Next Door To Next Door Away

 

This turned out to be a great metaphor for life and how, through incremental changes, we can get to a destination where there’s an entirely different landscape. When it comes to achieving desired fulfilment in life, this is exactly how it works. That’s why the most important thing is to be clear what you want that landscape to be. Most New Year’s resolutions fail because they are not aligned to our more foundational life aspirations. If you haven’t already, check out my last post on this very topic.

 

Being clear about your ultimate destination keeps you motivated because it offers a clear outcome not of a time-limited goal, but the kind of person you want to be. If I want to be the kind of person can get to Aunt Ruth’s house, it’s doesn’t help to think “I want to be able to do 110 ‘next doors’ by the end of the month” – I want to be able to say “Because I want to end up at Aunt Ruth’s house, I will do ‘next doors’ every week until I get there. Once I get to Aunt Ruth’s, not only have I achieved my goal, but I have become the kind of person who can get to any kind of “Aunt Ruth” that he chooses.

 

Creating Better Habits For Our Future Selves

 

The thing that is so hard about creating habits that are good for us is that they generally don’t feel so good straight away. As James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits has put it:

 

The cost of good habits is in the present and the cost of bad habits is in the future.

What he means by this is that bad habits tend to give us pleasure in the moment, but it’s a pleasure we pay for later. For example, habits like smoking a cigarette or drinking alcohol to relieve stress might feel great now, but that’s only because you pay the cost further down the line. While distractions like Netflix binges and scrolling through social media might feel good in the moment, the opportunity cost of that may become clear in the future when you still haven’t written that book or developed that side hustle. Because we’re wired for short term pleasure, it’s hard to make an investment in our future selves. As Clear has also astutely put it:

 

You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the bottom of your systems.

 

How To Keep Your New Year's Resolve: Create Better Systems Instead Of One-Off Goals

 

The outcomes you desire in your life will come from the better long term habits you develop now. That’s why single goal-oriented resolutions tend not to stick. Creating new habits that persist also isn’t easy, but focussing your attention on developing them will ultimately pay dividends. You can help yourself do that by thinking about the person you want to become and what kind of habits they live by without even thinking about it. That way it’s less about the willpower to get yourself to the gym three times a week (a typical New Year’s resolution), and more about being the kind of person who would just do that, because they are a healthily motivated person.

 

Once you’ve worked out what kind of life expression would be most meaningful to you, you can start building the sort of habits that that kind of person would have. Clear suggests four general laws of habit that can enable you to do this more purposefully. In essence, this is about making healthy habits easier to adopt, and bad habits harder to keep:  

 

1.     Make the cue for your new habit obvious.

 

A gym bag with gym shoes

Since new habits take time to form, starting from scratch is a challenge. The idea here is to remove as many hindrances as possible so you can adopt the new habit easily. For example, if you want to exercise more, pack your gym back in advance; if you want to have a healthy breakfast, prepare all the necessary the day before; if you want to meditate regularly, put your meditation cushion where you can’t miss it.


2.     Make the new habit attractive.

 

As much as possible you want to avoid using willpower to enact your new habit. Willpower comes on board to get you to do things you don’t want to do, so try to make the new habit as attractive as possible. If you hate running, start with an exercise that appeals to you more. If you want to meditate, don’t sit on a shitty cushion in a cluttered corner, invest in creating a mediation nook you’ll want to spend time in.

 

3.     Make it easy.

 

The idea here is to reduce friction as much as possible. Also to remember that habituation is more important than quantity. For example, it’s more important to exercise a little bit most days or meditate  a few minutes everyday than it is to exercise one hour three times a week or meditate a half-hour each day. Once you’ve set the habit, you can incrementally increase the duration or difficulty.

 

4.     Make it satisfying.

 

This has a lot to do with re-framing the habit. For example, people unaccustomed to exercising find the effort and pain of it off-putting, while those that are habituated to exercise see it as progress. If you can re-frame the feelings that come along with a healthier choice, it is likely to motivate rather than hinder you.

 

In order to get rid of bad habits, simply reverse these four rules. Make the cues for them less obvious such as getting rid of all the paraphernalia that colludes with your bad choices (e.g. getting rid of cigarettes and all associated paraphernalia); make the old habit unattractive (see them as contributors to the person you don’t want to be); make it hard (e.g. cancel that Netflix subscription or don’t have junk foods around); make it unsatisfying (realise that not exercising is what doesn’t feel good). Use that idea of the person you want to become making these choices as a matter of course.

 

You Can Still Set Goals, But See Them As Practicing Keeping Promises To Yourself

 

This year I’ve made my New Year’s resolutions with reference to what I feel is the best expression of myself. Like everyone else, I want to be healthier, make better choices about how I use my time, and be more productive. Since I’ve just turned fifty, health choices are more important than ever before, and I’m really keen to get some writing projects finished.

 

There are other things I’d like to do too, like improve my French, take a drawing course, and learn Arabic, but I understand that time is limited and I can’t do it all – and over-resolving is a sure recipe for failure.

 

To distil it down to its essence (which helps)  I want to become the kind of person who makes healthy choices about his health, nutrition, relationships, state of mind, productivity, and use of time. To this end, I have made some specific resolutions that will contribute to that.

 

Since I’ve identified that I waste way too much time-consuming media (I’m a confirmed Netflix addict) which is happening at the expense of my other goals. For this reason I have limited my TV consumption to one hour maximum on weekdays; I’m more generous with myself at the weekends, but still avoiding massive binges. I now associate my TV with media consumption and no longer take my iPad into the bedroom with me.


A person lying on the couch

 

Also in support of my desire for more time, I have committed to waking up earlier each morning which gives me the space to enact my other commitment to daily meditation. In order to support this I have also committed to a basic activity regime (so I’ll be more tired) and am on a dry January.

 

Learn To Trust Commitments You Make For Yourself

 

I have identified that my alcohol consumption has a lot of negative consequences that I am no longer prepared to accept; it interferes with my sleep, decreases my energy levels, and contributes to my bad media habits due to reducing my capacity to do more productive things like read, write, or do something creative. Now don’t get me wrong, I really like a drink, it’s just that the cost of the gain is becoming less and less acceptable.


Enjoying a pint withy my cousin Eric (Aunt Ruth's son).
Enjoying a pint withy my cousin Eric (Aunt Ruth's son).

While taking a dry January isn’t a solution to the problem, it does give my body a chance to recover, and come February I will start making choices around alcohol consumption that my better self will wish to make. My hope is that the sustaining element will come in having convinced myself of the satisfaction of these new habits. Even though we’re just a week into January, the time that I’ve reclaimed with these limited choices has been both suprising and gratifying. Since I’m not wasting so much time watching TV or being hungover, I’ve actually got a surplus of time, which has meant regularly using a language learning app to improve my French, a goal that didn’t even make my shortlist this year.


These commitments I’ve made don’t just contribute to my ultimately getting to Aunt Ruth’s house, in the end, they also help me build trust that I can keep promises I make to myself while demonstrating the positive consequences of these choices. I am intentionally strengthening the mental muscles that gets me next door to next door to next door. Once we become confident that we’ll keep (reasonable) promises to ourselves, the easier it becomes to make and keep those commitments going.

 

The Threat To New Year’s Resolutions Isn’t The First Slip-Up, It’s The Second

 

When it comes to knowing how to keep your New Year's resolve that doesn't mean we won't slip up. I want to stress that none of us is perfect, and we have to align our commitments to a level that is challenging enough, but not so challenging that they are impossible to keep. This is the problem of most New Year’s resolutions. It’s pernicious too because when we “fail” to keep them, we also lose trust in our capacity to keep promises to ourselves. It’s much better to start small and build your capacity for personal commitment than aim high, fall short, and dismiss the possibility.

 

The one exception to this is in the spirit of the thing. We can aim high in the sense that we’re doing all of this because we want to get to Aunt Ruth’s house. The trick is that we want to do it next door by next door rather than over-promising ourselves the world from the start. Even if I only do one next door at a time, I’ll get to Aunt Ruth’s eventually. That won’t happen if I promise myself 100 next doors, get to fifty, and give up all together.

 

We will all drop the ball along the way – that’s to be expected. But being the person you are working yourself towards being is about being the kind of person who picks up the ball the next day and carries on. That takes a bit of grit and resilience, but it’s worth it. If you find it keeps happening, you might want to re-assess your goals. After all, if you down deep you really don’t want to visit Aunt Ruth, no amount of goal setting is going to get you there.

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