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Written by B and photo by Dev Dodia on Unsplash
What is the best small talk question to ask on a new year’s eve party surrounded by strangers? Yes, ask for their resolutions. Although, I have the feeling that most people’s relationship to their resolutions, is comparable to my relationship to IKEA instructions: You have them, but you don’t really stick to them… But why do we (always) seem to screw up all the good intentions at a certain point? And most importantly: What can we do about it?
Changing is hard. We are evolutionarily primed to stick with what worked, because that basically didn’t kill us, right? Most inspirational speakers ask you to cross your arms at this point, let you check which arm is on top and ask you to put your arms the other way around. After involuntarily performing some classic 70s Saturday Night Fever dance moves most of us get the point that even such a basic thing, as changing your favorite arm from top to bottom, is difficult. How difficult is then something like quit smoking, work out or stop nail biting, especially if you have (not) done it for years? First, you need to understand how habits are formed.
Habits consist of a three part structure starting with some form of cue, like being stressed, a certain behavior of meditating or going for a run and a reward, feeling less anxious and relieved, for example. That is not you? Well, it could be definitely in future. ;)
Forming new habits is hard. For everyone. But it gets easier the more often you try and actually change. This makes you believe you can change! When you want to start a new habit you should honestly believe that people in general and you in particular can change - if they are determined enough. You might feel a lot of voices in your head that other’s or you yourself have implanted and protect you from actually trying. Sentences like “I am not a morning person” or “I am bad at math”, will hinder you to get up. Even if you managed to finally give it a try, when the first obstacles appear, you are quite willing to accept that this was not meant for you and allow the prophecy to fulfil itself. If you struggle with believing in yourself write an affirmation that you read daily to you. It might feel very awkward in the beginning. Nevertheless, this will change your restricting inner voices into motivational ones.
Life is lived in small steps. Even big accomplishments like a Nobel prices or big ventures are not build and grown overnight. However, we tend to underestimate the importance of our small steps and decisions. Albeit they all add up to the big picture. As Hal Elrod puts it in his book Miracle Morning: “We must realize that the real impact and consequence of each of our choices and actions – and even our thoughts – is monumental, because every single thought, choice, and action is determining who we are becoming, which will ultimately determine the quality of our lives.” I am a big fan of pointillist art. The pictures for example of Seurat are all made up of small little dots. From the distance, it creates a very unique impression, but this only works because every single, little spot fits the bigger picture. So, next time you are tempted to break a new habit you want to acquire imagine this decision being the one ruining your whole picture.
Those of you who have read Simon Sinek’s book or watched some of his videos know how important the why is for successful products or businesses. The same goes for your personal development goals and life. Give yourself a good reason why to go through strain and it will become easier. Before starting a new habit I reflect on my motives and even write them down. Be as precise as possible and focus on your sentiments. Some abstract thought like a newspaper article that said that it is healthy or good for you to work out regularly might not work that well. Ask yourself why you want to work out. How do you feel if you don’t workout? For example: I wanted make a regular yoga work-out in the morning my new habit. I realized that I am often stiff in the morning, especially if I had a workout the prior day. So, I wrote it down and it even became my cue for this routine. When I feel stiff I think of yoga as a solution. As important as your cue and motive is a reward. Many healthy behaviors have a reward-function pre-installed. You just need to learn to unlock it. After my yoga workout I reflect a few minutes in silence on how I feel. Try to put this feeling in a memory jar and keep it. Take it out and remind yourself of this feeling whenever you struggle. For other activities you could plan a reward. For example, I like having a cuddling and play session with my dog, after my writing routine.
There are those days. When time is scare and we are highly tempted to skip routines and habits. Prepare an emergency plan for those days. First, you prioritize what is important and what is allowed to be skipped, if really there is no other option. However, I prefer that you create a mini-version of your habits. Instead of a 30 min workout you only stretch and flex and do some jumping jacks and burpees, for example. This way you do not get out of your routine.
Very often we act in patterns, but we fail to recognize them, because we do not see the bigger picture. If you, for example, aim to stop nail biting, make a not every time you catch yourself. Note down the circumstances and your motivation. After a time, you will see patterns emerge. Now you know what triggers your behavior. You can take precautions, by developing a healthy and better alternative routine, which can substitute your old.
In any case make it harder for you to follow bad habits and easier to follow good ones. You want to eat less sweets or watch less tv? Put the sweets high up the shelve or the tv remote in a different room locked away. No matter what you do, make sure you need some more effort to start watching tv or eating sweets. If you realize that you bite your nails mostly while reading or watching tv, maybe put on gloves for the first few time. Similarly, make it easy for you to work out by having a yoga matt laying right at the floor or encourage yourself to practice more regularly, by having your instrument in reach. Ask yourself also what could possibly interfere with a new positive habit you want to implement and prepare a strategy or reaction for that situations, too. Your flat mates ask you out during the week, when you want to study? Tell them about your new resolution and let them help you resist the temptation by not asking you out anymore during week nights. If you will be asked despite your announcement, or do not want to share your resolution for some reason, prepare a response, maybe even write down the exact words you want to say and practice them in advance. This might seem strange but will help you not to form a decision on the spot and under time pressure, once you are asked out. You have made your decision in advance and already a good excuse. Lowering the level of temptation will help you stick to your resolution. If you replace the emergency- chocolate in your work desk with emergency-carrots you will be surprised how seldom emergencies will occur. ;)
It might also help to get a buddy. This will increase you accountability and make it harder for you to skip a routine. If you like it, you can make a challenge or a bet with a friend that might help you get you through the first days and weeks of implementing a new habit. Peer pressure is very important when you aim to change your lifestyle. If you want to quit smoking, sticking around your old circle of friends, who smoke, may confront you with unwanted temptations and not enough support for your new resolutions.
When we make resolutions we often aim big. But aiming big can sometimes stand in our way. When you start a new habit set the goal at least realistically in the best case a bit below the bar. “Nah, I can do that easily…” If that is the answer to your new habit, then it is a very good start. Habits are not sprints but marathons. When you want to start reading every day, make for example 15 minutes your goal. That might seem not so much, but we underestimate what impact habits can have. Sticking to this habits for just one year will give you 5.475 minutes of reading. With average reading speed, you will have read 1.368.750 words or about 4.563 pages. So about 23 200-page-books. That is a lot. When you really stick to this simple habit it is way better than reading for 5 hours on the first day and then never touch a book again. Later, once you are used to this simple habit, you can increase your reading time.
Imagine a situation where you just change one aspect in your life and everything else would follow? There are habits that impact several aspects of your life. Improving this will leverage automatically the other areas. To find them, ask yourself what would be the one thing you need to improve in your life? This might be a skill, for which you start to make practice a habit or it can directly be some form of habit. You can also specify the one thing for your personal and/ or business life. If you do not find a specific skill that would help you, there are some habits that are very universal like start exercising, meditation or reading.
But there are also skills that help you to maintain or implement new habits. Which you luckily can train! Willpower and self-control are a few examples.
So, have fun sticking to your new years resolutions this year!
Some suggestions for further reading
Duhigg, C. (2013). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change.
Elrod, H. (2016). The Miracle Morning: The 6 Habits That Will Transform Your Life Before 8AM.
Guise, S. (2013). Mini habits. Smaller habits, bigger results.
Keller, G., & Papasan, J. (2013). The one thing: The surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results.
Sinek, S. (2011). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action.Published on Sunday 7th June 2020
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