Before we turned our garage into a gym (much better use than car parking), my wife and I used to be regulars at a local kettlebell gym. As much as I love swinging kettlebells, I resented going to the gym each January. The gym’s membership would swell exponentially as enthusiastic new members rolled in to fulfill their new year’s resolutions. Like clockwork, by February, the new gym goers would fade out, as they traded in their gym memberships for their pre-resolution Netflix binge habit.
Breaking new year’s resolutions has become as cliché as making them. We’re built to resist change. Ingrained habits and daily routines are hard to break. After all, we’ve spent years cultivating them until they’re second nature. They aren’t going to give up their prime spot on our habit rolodex without a fight.
And so, we resolve to start a diet, but quit a week or two later. We resolve to read more, but can’t escape the allure of the remote control. We resolve to start exercising, but life gets in the way.
Most new year’s resolutions don’t work. In fact, they do more harm than good. The very notion of a new year’s resolution implies that there’s only one good time each year–January 1st–to form a new habit. If the resolution fails–as the vast majority of them inevitably do–the next window for making a resolution comes months down the line.
New year’s resolutions fail in part because they’re too amorphous: “Read more.” “Eat better.” “Exercise more.” “Sleep better.”
Each of these resolutions is a recipe for failure. The problem is that there’s no real metric for determining whether you’ve succeeded. How do you know if you’re eating better? How do you know if you’re exercising sufficiently? If the goal isn’t specific enough, there’s no good mechanism for tracking it and judging its outcome. You won’t know when you’ve won and when you’ve fallen short.
The word “resolution” also embodies a high threshold for success. By definition, you’re resolving–or engaging in a firm decision–to do or not to do something.
The typical resolution is a dramatic transformation of a current behavior. For example, if you don’t exercise at all, you might resolve to work out five times a week. If you don’t read, you might resolve to read one book a week. If you have a sweet tooth, you might resolve to go cold turkey on sugar.
When you set the threshold for success this high, when the gap between your current and future behavior is this wide, you’re likely to give up. And when that failure arrives, you feel guilty and beat yourself up over it.
Focus on incremental improvement
Instead of setting new year’s resolutions, focus on incremental improvement, with a low threshold for success.
Ease of attainment is crucial, particularly in the early stages of forming a new habit. Getting started is often the hardest part. As the behavioral psychologist BJ Fogg puts it, “To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.”
The more easily you can meet your goals, the less likely you are to give them up.
Want to work out regularly? Begin by doing 5 pushups every day.
Want to read more? Read 10 pages per day.
Want to meditate? Begin with 1 minute a day.
Doing 5 pushups or meditating for 1 minute might feel “too easy,” but it has the virtue of being attainable. It’ll give you a sense of accomplishment. After one push-up or 10 pages of reading, others will follow. You’ll develop momentum. You’ll get a hit of dopamine for each incremental step and find yourself going past the low threshold.
Isaac Newton’s first law of motion applies equally here: Objects at rest stay at rest. Objects in motion stay in motion.
Once you get moving, these seemingly small steps will snowball into big accomplishments. Assuming a 200-page book, 10 pages per day equals 18 books a year–not too shabby.
Seth Godin has it right: “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.”
Set up an accountability system.
The easiest way is to publicly voice your goal. Tell your goal to a spouse, friend, or co-worker. Ask them to check in on how you’re tracking.
If you want to up the ante and put some skin in the game, use a website like Stickk. You set a goal, pick a referee, and make a financial commitment to donate to an anti-charity with a cause you dislike. There’s no better incentive than a sizable public donation to the National Rifle Association for an anti-gun activist to pick up that book and start reading.
Set up a triggering event
The key is to not only focus on small steps–like “Do five push-ups” or “meditate for one minute”–but to tie them to activities that are already part of your daily routine.
“Meditate for one minute after I shower.”
“Do five push-ups after I brush my teeth in the morning.”
“Read 10 pages every day after dinner.”
Bundle your temptations
The triggering event can be an activity you enjoy. The authors of this study found that bundling indulgent activities with those that you’d like to do more regularly increases compliance rates. In the study, the participants bundled potentially guilt-inducing audiobooks with exercising, so that they could listen to their page-turners only when they were at the gym (personally, I reward myself with Dan Brown novels).
So, if you feel guilty binge-watching the latest season of Stranger Things, commit to watching the episodes only while working out. The indulgence will feel less like an indulgence when you’re watching the show on the treadmill.
Added bonus: You can pretend you’re the one who’s running away from the Demogorgon.