Just as certain as we can be that the years will tick over, we can bank on the fact that majority of us have set resolutions that we will have given up on by January 17th. Why? We all clearly intend to be better and we definitely live in a time where we have the resources to be better, why don’t we? Because humans are creatures of habit and if we don’t create the new routines that lead to our resolutions we will always revert to our old selves, our comfort zones.
You can change.
If you want to break the cycle and bust out of your comfort zone, here are three concepts you need to know to create habits that actually allow your resolutions to stick. You’ll need to be clear on your reasons; you need to know which habits to create and which habits to replace; and you’ll need to change your environment.
Identify Your Reasons
Let’s consider three different people who may have made a resolution to be fitter and healthier this year. Each of them have resolved to create habits of eating healthier and exercising first thing in the morning. The first person is a gym owner, they love being active and have dedicated their life and livelihood to making other people’s lives healthier. The second is an older gentleman who had a heart scare last year and has been told by his doctors that if he doesn’t make a drastic change he won’t have another New Year at all. The last is an average bloke who knows he should be little healthier, loves a few drinks with the lads and thinks that a good way to counteract the extra calories would be to join a gym. Of these three, who would you back to stick to their resolutions and why?
The gym owner will likely stick to their habits and reach their resolutions because it aligns with his purpose in life. The older gentleman is the next likely to find habits that work for him because he is avoiding pain. If he doesn’t stick to it, he dies. Then we have the average bloke who will most likely have given up on his resolutions by mid-January, for he has no compelling reason to stick it out.
The fuel that fires our resolutions is our reasons. It is commonly accepted that there are two reasons for change, but I like to talk about three. The first, and most common two are pain and pleasure. These operate at a motivation level – avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. The third, and the reason I encourage people to uncover, is their purpose. If our resolutions are driven by purpose than motivation becomes irrelevant.
At the same time that we make our resolutions we need to also state our reason.
If you have well established values and purpose – congratulations, you are in the minority. Define which of your values this year’s resolutions align with and consistently remind yourself of this reason every time you are triggered to perform your new habit.
If you are relying on a motivating reason – wonderful, these are most often the fire that causes the fastest and most dramatic change. Take your resolution for this year and simply ask yourself why you want to do it. Continue to ask why until your answer triggers either a severely painful feeling to avoid or a strong desire of pleasure to obtain. Sometimes, for the lucky few, this process can even reveal a reason from both ends of the spectrum.
Be clear and repetitive with your reason for change.
Picture yourself standing atop a mountain next to a waterfall. You’ve been given twenty gallons of water and you are tasked with creating your own stream to run down the mountain right next to the waterfall. The expectation is that when you’ve run out of water, all of the rain that now falls on top of this mountain will run down your stream and no longer down the waterfall. Do you think you’ll be successful?
This is how we expect new habits to form. Surprise, surprise – they don’t. The neuro pathways in our brain are deeply rigid and just like that waterfall they’ve been developed over years and years of repetitive behaviour forging a well-worn path. Creating a new habit is awfully difficult. Depending on the habit and the person, studies suggest it can take anywhere between 18 and 266 days to form a new habit. The secret to habit creation, to how the successful resolution makers utilise habits, is not to create new ones but to replace the old.
Habits follow a formula – there is a Trigger, a Routine and a Reward. Each of us have helpful habits and poor habits, it is our unhelpful, poor habits that are the fast track key to forming new resolution creating habits.
We want to keep the trigger and the reward; and only replace the routine.
Pick your current poor habit that contradicts your new resolution.
In the evening when you get peckish you go straight to the pantry and eat half a packet of crisps because it makes you feel satisfyingly full.
Identify the trigger that begins the poor habit.
Peckish in the evening.
Change the routine to something more helpful.
Don’t walk towards the pantry. Keep a bottle of water near the front door and head outside for a 10 minute walk with your water instead.
Acknowledge the reward.
The water has satisfied your hunger feeling, and the walk has helped digest dinner.
Replacing the routine of our old, poor habits is imperative to having new habits that allow our resolutions to stick.
Change Your Environment
It’s Friday afternoon and you’re still having the same conversations with the same colleagues about where you’re heading for knock-offs this week. Little do they know, you actually resolved to drink less and train more this year. In this moment, how likely do you think it is that you’ll head to the gym instead of the bar after work?
You head back to your workspace and you’re looking at your computer screen, just off to the left is your iPhone, safely within reach. A quick look at the bottom of your screen and you are comforted that outlook is open with a couple of red notifications, and there’s Facebook, LinkedIn, their tabs are open as well. Perhaps you work in an open office space, or you’ve got your own office but your door is open because you need to remain approachable. You are trying to dive into some important deep work, total concentration needed, how productive do you think you’ll be?
Our environment dictates our habits and it is the number one hinderance to you sticking to your resolutions. While our motivation provides two steps forward, our environment can take us one step back. The place you work, the food in your cupboard, where you keep your phone and the people you spend your time with, everything about our old environment reminds our brain to perform our old, poor habits.
The portion of our brain that does our unconscious thinking relies on the predictability of our environment, evolution has created a brain that operates without us consciously thinking because if we had to consciously decide to do everything we wouldn’t survive. Problem being, that habits form whether they are helpful or not.
Change our environment and our brain cannot automatically perform our poor habits.
Decide on which habits you want to rid yourself of and take the steps to remove their enablers from your environment. If you want to avoid office drinks, spend some time with the office triathlete. If you want to be more productive at work, remove all possible distractions from your work space. If you are hoping to eat healthier, remove Deliveroo from your phone and the bad food from your fridge.
No matter the resolution, the thing that doesn’t change on December 31 is your environment. You must change that if you want your resolutions to stick.
Sticking to resolutions is hard work and our habitual nature gives no favour to the process of change. Learn to work on your daily habits – change your environment, create new habits by replacing poor ones and identify your reasons for change. We all want to be better, every year we all resolve to improve, it’s those of us that change our daily habits that will make the resolutions that stick.
Michael Puhle is a High-Performance Speaker & Executive Coach as well as the Founder of WordsWithOz.