A few years I ago I made one last New Year’s resolution. I resolved to never make another resolution again. The good news is that, so far, I have defied the odds and actually achieved that one!
The bottom line is – New Year’s resolutions rarely work. In fact, research highlights that just 12% of people who make resolutions actually achieve successful outcomes. Not good odds, and not worth dedicating significant amounts of your precious time.
Nowadays, I use the New Year as a time of reflection and re-creation, rather than for making resolutions. I learnt this the hard way. I used to make New Year’s resolutions by optimistically planning to achieve things that required willpower. As the statistics suggest, I used to fail an awful lot, and I never knew why. The world around me was very much attuned to confirm that I failed because I lacked willpower and was lazy. A big part of me used to believe this, and like so many other people, I did not feel good about it.
It wasn’t until I embraced my hard-wired weaknesses and focused on developing systems designed to suit them that I started to make a big impact on my life. The way to succeed is not to design goals that will work on your best days, but design them to work on your worst days. That takes willpower out of the equation.
Our working memory has limited capacity, and we need considerable ‘brain power’ to maintain and process information – like being determined not to eat chocolate, or remembering to exercise every morning. Willpower just doesn’t work over the long term because it actually requires an awful lot of cognitive load to maintain it. And this is why New Year’s resolutions don’t work for the majority of people. It only takes a setback or a bad day, and your will can be broken. Once broken, it becomes easier and easier to break next time, usually to the point to where the resolution itself is forgotten.
A typical New Year resolution I might have made in the past would be: “This year I am going eat healthy food, exercise more and manage my stress.” My chances of long-term success would be 0%. It would work for a few days in a bad year, and even for a few weeks in a good year – but it would never become a permanent change. There is just far too much to think about and maintain when the goals are so wide and woolly.
If I have a desire for change nowadays, my approach is to select to do the smallest thing that will make the biggest difference. Each month, I choose just one thing, and give it the whole month of focus to form it into a permanent keystone habit. Habits form in a different part of the brain, and therefore they do not provide cognitive overload. Established habits don’t require willpower to maintain, which is the key to making permanent changes without the need for you to think about it.
So, if I wanted to make the same transformation (eat healthy food, exercise more and manage stress) today, here is an example of how I would approach it now:
Month 1 Tiny Keystone Habit Introduction
Do 10 short all-out sprints, either standing or running, as soon as I get out of bed (Total time 5 minutes)
Month 2 Tiny Keystone Habit Introduction
Take 3 deep breaths when I wake up in the morning (Total time 1 minute)
Month 3 Tiny Keystone Habit Introduction
Have a protein and fat based breakfast within an hour of waking up (Total cooking and eating time 5 minutes)
All 3 of the examples shown here are based on huge amounts of personal research and self-experimentation, looking into some of the most effective small changes out there. They go against common thinking, but if you look at emerging research, you will find that much of what is commonplace is being challenged.
These are the combined benefits of these 3 keystone habits alone:
- Builds up my fitness over time
- Increases happiness and wellbeing
- Reduces stress
- Massively increases my productivity
- Improves brain performance
- Reduces cognitive overload
- Improves the immune system
- Improves sleep
- Improves willpower
- Reduces food cravings during the remainder of the day
- Provides a platform for wanting to do more exercise and eat healthier
- Radically reduces the long term risks of many common diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes etc
- Increases life expectancy
And all for consistently implementing 11 minutes’ worth of new habits over a 3-month period! Surely this habit implementation is worth the effort, even on the very worst of days?
It is important to realize that this approach can be applied in absolutely any dimension. The important thing is to look for the keystone to change first. For example, if you want to give up smoking, focus for a month on just eliminating that first cigarette after breakfast. Form and embed the new habit. Then, the next month, focus on building the next new habit. If you want to use your smartphone less, maybe for the first month, focus on charging it outside the bedroom – or further from your reach – and build from there.
Keeping new habits small and high impact, and implementing them one by one is important. Embracing, accepting and innovating for your worst days and tailoring tasks to your biggest weaknesses are key to living your best life. Introducing 1 new tiny keystone habit every month over a 5 or 10-year period can allow huge changes in your life that can really take you to terrific places.
That is where the real opportunity lies and why I recommend that you forget about one-off resolutions and look to living in a permanent state of small-scale evolution. If you’re going to make one last resolution at all – resolve to do this. Then, you will actually have a much better chance of succeeding.
I would love to hear what small change you are going to make this month, or how your small changes will lead to your biggest goals. Let me know in the comments box below.
Change is for life, not just for New Year! Enjoy the continual process, and let’s hope it makes 2014 your best year yet!
Marc Winn blogs at “The View Inside Me” where he shares his own personal insight on how to discover ones own potential. To read more of his thoughts go to his blog here