It’s a brand new year, and with it comes the same old same old: Making resolutions to keep for the year. However, many of us don’t bother with this because we know resolutions don’t work. How do we know it doesn’t work? Well, we hear stories of failure from our friends, and we read about it in lifestyle magazines about how hard it is to keep to the resolutions made. Oftentimes this is enough to dissuade us from even trying in the first place.
But let’s ask a deeper question: Why don’t they work? To answer this, we need to delve into the two concepts of goal-setting and habit-forming. By doing so, we might gain some insights into how we can tweak our resolutions to improve our chances of success.
Most resolutions come in the form of big goals. Examples include: Wanting to win a certain competition, becoming fit and looking better, or achieving a certain qualification. This presents a number of problems, which are listed below as follows:
- You need to be at a certain level of competency before you can achieve such a goal. An example is passing a piano exam. To pass, you have to be good enough at playing the piano. This requires extensive practice and perseverance, the difficulty of which is not adequately emphasized in the resolution.
- Even if you achieve the desired level of competency, there is no guarantee that you will definitely attain the goal. This is because part of what determines whether you achieve the goal is not under your control. An example is winning a dancing competition. You may be very good at dancing and put in loads of sweat, blood and tears to get to your current standard, but if the judges prefer another style of dancing displayed by a competitor, then that competitor will win and not you, despite your effort.
- Some resolutions involve goals that are hard to measure. An example is becoming fit or looking better. You know you want to look better, but you don’t know how to track your progress towards getting there. How much weight do you need to lose? Or is it fat%? For becoming a fitter person, what test will you use to see if you are indeed becoming fitter?
From the above, we can see that resolutions which downplay the effort required for success, are determined by things not solely under our control and which are not quantifiable or measurable: These are the resolutions which will most often end in failure.
Let’s see an example of a resolution which avoids all of the above mistakes: The goal of losing 5kg of weight through eating a healthier diet and exercising regularly. By mentioning how the goal will be achieved – through diet and exercise, it lays out a clear process to upkeep if success is to be achieved, and acts as a constant reminder of the difficulty involved – one has to sacrifice unhealthy foods and maintain a regular exercise regimen in order to succeed. Also, the goal of losing weight is one that is controllable by oneself. It does not require effort or input from anyone else – only you can choose whether you wish to exercise regularly or eat healthily. Lastly, the specific goal of 5kg means there is a very clear benchmark by which to track your progress, as well as to determine when the goal has been achieved.
So, what else can we do to improve our chances of sticking to our resolutions, other than avoiding the above pitfalls?
One way is to understand human psychology. Specifically, how habits are formed. Unlike what conventional wisdom dictates, what determines whether you are able or unable to stick with a resolution is not willpower or drive. The guy who manages to meet his goals and surpass his own expectations while you flounder with your yet-to-do lists is not more motivated or driven than you.
I’ll say that again. Success does not depend on your willpower. Success depends on what habits you have. And if you think the main determinant in forming good habits or getting rid of bad ones is willpower, you will have fallen victim to yet another common misconception. Why is this so?
The truth is that at the end of the day, we will do what we want to do. The problem, of course, is that we find ourselves doing things we know aren’t good for us, and not doing the things which we know we should be doing. How do we change this?
The answer is simple: We make it as easy as possible to do the things we know we should do. And we make it as hard as possible to do the things we know we shouldn’t be doing.
Let’s go back to the example of exercising regularly to lose weight. You know you should be exercising, but it’s so hard to muster up the willpower to put on your running shoes after you get home from work, right? So, if you feel lazy and skip running, you’ll have failed the resolution for that day, and that starts you down the slippery slope where you think “oh i failed once, what’s so bad if i let loose another time?”. Not good at all.
Let’s turn the situation around. What if you didn’t have to run? If your initial plan was to run 5km in half an hour everyday, what about walking for that half an hour instead? That’s way easier, right? Did that work to get you out of the house? No? Then what about walking for 15 minutes? 10? 5? The idea here is to make the daily routine so easy to achieve that you don’t have to muster any extra willpower in order to do it.
You might be thinking, “Hey, if i just walk for 5 minutes a day, what good will that do me? I might as well not do anything at all!” Yes, you would be completely right in thinking that the 5 minutes by itself will be almost negligible in terms of calories burnt. But we must be mindful that the objective at this stage is not to succeed in your overall goal, which is losing weight. It is to form the permanent habit that allows you to succeed in losing weight in the long run. Sure, you might be able to muster up the willpower to run 5km daily for a month or two, but six months down the road, when you’ve long given up on the resolution due to burning out and losing interest, will it have made any difference? Conversely, think of the scenario where you walk for 5 minutes a day, and after awhile you start thinking “Hey, this is way too easy. I already automatically walk my 5 minutes daily, so how about I step it up to 10 minutes?”. The chances that you will still be sticking to your habit six months down the road will be way higher. By that time, who knows what level of exercise you will be putting yourself through daily? And to top it off, you’ll be doing it without needing to psych yourself up to doing it. It’s become part of your lifestyle: a habit.
How else can you make a habit easier to start? Positioning and cues.
Let’s start with the first concept: Positioning. Let’s say you want to run daily. If you come home and your running shoes are buried under a pile of other stuff, what are the chances that you’ll be bothered to dig through the wastes in order to extricate them just so you can go run? Not great, right? Conversely, if you reach your doorstep and right next to the door are your shoes with running socks already prepared, don’t you think the chance of you running would increase significantly? This can be applied to any goal. Want to play the piano daily? Stop using your piano as a table. Want to pass that exam? Make sure your desk is free of distractions and that your phone is turned off. Learn to identify any possible mental hindrances that prevent you from starting your desired habit.
Now for cues. Cues are divided into the five senses that we have. Audio cues, visual cues, maybe even oral cues – a cue is basically anything that when sensed or perceived by you, acts as an unconscious reminder to commence your desired habit. A simple example is an alarm set to go off at a fixed time. Don’t want to spend too long wasting your life on Facebook? Set an alarm to go off in 5 minutes. When the alarm goes off, you get reminded that you should get off the Internet and start doing whatever you need to be doing. However, take note that a cue need not have an obvious link with your desired habit. For example, let’s say your goal is to study a chapter of a certain book everyday. Since you know that you always brush your teeth daily, you can then kick-start your habit of studying the book by always doing it after brushing your teeth. After awhile, you will find that the act of brushing your teeth will naturally lead to you studying the book. Essentially, what you have done is to let your desired habit ride on an existing habit. This is way easier than trying to build up a brand new habit from scratch.
The last tip I have for ensuring success in forming desirable habits is simple: Know when to give yourself a pat on the back. Yes, at the start it may seem ridiculous to tell yourself you did a good job after walking for just 5 minutes at a leisurely pace, but nonetheless it’s important. Acknowledging that you did a good job makes you feel good. Our brains love feeling good, and human nature makes it such that we will naturally want to continue doing the desired activity so we can continue feeling good.
So, with all that said, do you still believe resolutions are a waste of time and effort? Don’t let this year fly by – every year of your life is infinitely special and precious. Start thinking of what you want to achieve for this year, and get out there and do it!
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