It’s that time of year again. January is right around the corner, and resolution time with it. And often, it’s the same story. You set a good intention, you start out putting your best efforts towards it; but somehow, it just doesn’t stick.
You want to do it. You know you’ll feel better. You know it will be good for you. But whatever it is–exercising three times a week, drinking an extra glass of water a day, meditating or praying daily for five minutes, doing the home care your massage therapist recommended–you just keep falling off the path.
We expect a lot of ourselves, and the added pressure of the “New Year, New You” mantra doesn’t help. Our days are already packed, so finding time to cram in just one more thing might work for a month or a few weeks, but sooner or later, we’re going to lose our rhythm.
But there are ways to make helpful habits stick. It starts with making your ‘resolution’ part of your daily life.
1. “Micro-Quotas” for “Macro-Goals”
This is not a new concept. Gregory Ciotti, the author of Sparring Mind–a website about creative work, productivity, and habits–writes about how we can use this method of thinking to achieve our main goals.
Dreaming big, as many call it, can provide us the motivation to achieve our goals. Having that inviting end-goal is the carrot dangling from the stick. However, if your goal is big or abstract, it can become daunting to know what specific elements in your day-to-day will get you there. And when the goals seem too big to be achievable, we often develop mental resistance and give up.
That’s where “Micro-Quotas” come into play. Break down your “Macro-Goal” into measurable and very attainable daily quotas. For example, if your goal is to read more, your micro-quota could be to read five pages a day. This will make the entire task of building the new habit seem less daunting, and help you keep the habit going.
Even better, start with the smallest increment you can identify, and build on that. Read one paragraph. That’s it. Next week, make it two paragraphs. It’s hard to build up mental resistance when the goal is so small. Leo Babauta often gives this advice: if you want to run, make your initial goal to put on your shoes and step out the door. If you want to meditate, start by sitting down on the cushion at the same time every day.
Once you’ve successfully built the habit into your routine, you can start to focus on results. We’ve read about a man who lost more than 100 pounds, but started by limiting his daily exercise to a maximum of five minutes.
2. Stack your new habit on existing successful habits
This is a common piece of advice we share with clients. We have seen improvements in exercise or home-care results when people can integrate the care into a routine or habit they already have, rather than thinking of it as something extra.
To do this, find the times in your day where you already have successful habits or routines formed: drinking your morning cup of coffee, taking your shower, walking with your dog. Then let your new habit hitch a ride on your established routine. For example, you can accomplish your micro-quota of reading five pages daily while on your morning bus ride, or while you drink your daily coffee. You can stretch your calves while waiting for your tea to brew or your dog to do her business.
Pairing your new habit with a habit or routine you have already successfully integrated makes it easier to remember to do it. And that’s half the battle!
3. Stop the “What-the-Hell Effect”
The “What-the-Hell Effect” is a phrase coined by researchers at the University of Toronto during an experiment with dieters and non-dieters. The experiment consisted of providing a slice of pizza to participants, then asking them to eat cookies and “taste and rate” them.
The pizza slices were all identical; however, the researchers made some seem larger and some smaller than others. Among dieters, those who believed they had overeaten with a large slice of pizza and “blown” their diet ate more cookies during the second part of the experiment than did the non-dieters. These dieters actually averaged about 50% more cookies! But dieters who were given a pizza slice that appeared smaller, and thus thought they hadn’t gone over their calorie count, ate the same number of cookies as non-dieters.
What does this tell us? When we believe we’ve been derailed, it’s easier to throw our goals to the wayside. Since we frequently get derailed by the ups and downs of life, it’s no wonder we have trouble making new habits stick.
-focus on your successes
To avoid the derailing, there are a few things you can do. One is to remember your “Macro-Goal”, and the other is to emphasize what you have already accomplished (rather than to focus on your supposed failures). With the daily reading example, you might miss a day because you slept in, or had company and didn’t have a chance to read. Don’t focus on not having completed the habit; instead, remember your main goal of reading daily and look back at how many days you have already read five pages. This will remind you that you are accomplishing your goal and that one set back won’t deter you.
-make success visible
Your best tool for keeping track of your success makes it visible: for example, a calendar on which you put a check mark for every day you accomplish the habit. You can also download spreadsheets: Joe’s Goals is popular, and there is a host of others, some of which are summarized on 7 Tools to Help Keep Track of Habits and Goals.
-enlist support and be accountable
Having a goal-buddy, or a group, for support and accountability is another proven way to increase your success. For example, Leo Babauta’s Sea Change Program provides monthly themes, guidance, webinars, and a place to check in and to discuss your successes and difficulties with others. James Clear‘s thoughtful and readable blog on forming habits includes a wealth of community discussion in the comments on each post, and he offers a free e-book on transforming habits.
So this new year, keep these points in mind as you embark on your new habit journey. A year of successes is built on each day’s small steps.