Habits for the New Year — Ease into Them Now

New Year’s resolutions — did you complete last year’s? Or how about the one from the year before?  If not, you’re in good company.  Research at the University of Scranton reports that 92% of people will fail to complete their New Year’s resolution.

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According to Tony Schwarz in “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” we have a limited reservoir of willpower.  What does that mean? If we are tempted by something, we have to use our willpower to resist it. And when we run out of willpower, we often give up.

The key is to use willpower to make a change — be it in relationships, work, exercise, or food — but to do it using the least amount of willpower AND often enough to become a habit.  Because once it’s a habit, then you don’t need willpower. Just think of all the things you do from habit — from brushing your teeth to looking for cars before you cross the road. These don’t need willpower or any of our attention — they’re habits.  For this post, let me use food as an example throughout. Just remember that the same principals can apply elsewhere in your life.

So, maybe your big “New Year’s Eve” commitment is “going vegan tomorrow.” If this is a dramatic change, you will be constantly using your willpower to say NO to the danish, turkey sandwich, and spaghetti bolognese that you might have eaten on New Year’s day and the other 364 days of the year. It’s a lot to say no to – and a lot to ask of yourself. And most likely, if you don’t put some systems in place to support yourself, you will run out of willpower, and join the 92%.

Instead, you could choose one thing to change that will not take ALL your willpower, and do it often enough that it becomes a habit. And then you could change something else.

About food, maybe you always put a lot of cheese on your salad and your sandwiches and you want to stop that.  Then make a manageable plan that will help to set up new habits e.g. give up cheese until 7PM.  Right there — this became more “manageable.” It’s a narrow and specific change, with an after-7PM option, so it’s not forever. Countless studies support moderation as the most effective way to make long term changes — so have “less” cheese to start rather than none, and maybe use the clock to create that boundary.  And with time and practice, the “no cheese” can become a habit.

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Speaking from experience, several years ago, I switched to “vegan” overnight (I had been was eating fish, dairy and chicken). Giving up meat and fish was pretty easy for me — but giving up dairy and eggs did me in. I wasn’t prepared for it, or particularly committed, and I gave up after a few weeks. Fast forward more than a year, during which time I’d been diligently following a vegetarian diet, and I went vegan again.  This time, giving up eggs and dairy was a bit of a challenge but not nearly as hard as it had been. I already had lots of experience preparing vegetarian meals, so the change was more moderate. The original dramatic change was too much for my willpower and that time I joined the 92%.  Next time around I joined the 8%.  More about my food journey here if you’re interested.

But back to habits … and New Year’s resolutions. If you’re tempted to make resolutions, AND you’re committed to really making changes in your life, what can you do to be part of the 8% that succeed?

To start, begin now — don’t wait for New Year’s Eve to make a commitment. Think it through now so that when New Year’s Eve rolls around, you’ll be ready with a commitment, a plan, and even some practice with the new behavior. To help, here’s a five-step process to create new habits.

1. Focus on your behavior — not a goal that might be beyond your control. Here’s a food example:

“Lose 10 pounds”  vs. “eat healthier”:  You could do all the “right things” and lose some weight but get discouraged when you plateau having lost 8 pounds. Why might you be stuck at 8 pounds off? So many possibilities from muscle gain, to under-eating, your metabolism, or water retention (WebMD gives you a list of 10 to consider).  So, instead of picking a number, pick what you can control — you CAN control what you eat, so why not focus on that?  Diet advice abounds to I won’t offer specifics, but the important point is to focus on what you have complete control over — namely, in this case, what you put in your mouth.

2. Take it seriously. Think about whether you are willing to be the “odd man out” which means you might the one who doesn’t drink at a weekday happy hour, or the one won’t eat refined sugars and doesn’t have a slice of birthday cake.  Are you really committed to this, whatever “this” is for you? Or is it just something you think you should do? Using the food example:

Eating healthier?  Are you really committed to eating healthier?  That might mean investing some time and effort in learning, planning and preparing, or is it likely to be a short-lived effort (like my first attempt at going vegan)? You’ve likely read success stories about people who transformed their lives by changing their eating overnight, often because the doctor said he or she was putting his or her life at risk. Forks Over Knives is full of these inspiring examples, as are other regimes, including Whole 30. The point is that these people found a way to stick with a new, probably inconvenient, way of eating — it was all about their commitment.

Again, focus on something you can control, and pick something you are willing to commit to.

3. Make it specific. Take a closer look at that commitment, and make it as specific as you can. Look for something you can measure or observe, and also look for something you CAN do, as opposed to what you cannot do.

“Eating healthier” is too vague since “healthier” is pretty subjective. Maybe “healthier” is eating more leafy greens, or giving up processed foods. Or maybe it’s a smaller step, like eating popcorn instead of potato or corn chips, or eating only “whole grains.”  But think it through and make it specific. For example, does “whole grains” mean it has to be 100% whole wheat?  Are there any exceptions? Is this for this week or this month?  Make it so specific that it’s black or white — no grey areas.  If it’s clear, you will know for sure if you’ve “done it.”

So now you have something in your control, something you’re willing to commit to, and something specific enough to measure or observe it.

4. Consider your barriers and roadblocks — then make a plan to get over them.

Eating healthier? What’s going to get in your way?  Are the office snacks always tempting you? Or the muffins at the coffee shop?  Are you great at home, but always tempted when you’re out — or is it the reverse?  Take some time to think about your commitment, and think about when it might be the hardest — then make a plan for how to deal with those difficult times. It might mean carrying almonds in your pocket to snack on before you go to a restaurant, so that you’re not “starving” and attacking the bread basket.  Or maybe you’ll just ask the wait staff NOT to bring the bread and order an appetizer right away.  If you can anticipate the bumps, you can plan for ways around them.

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And now you have something that:

  • is in your control,
  • is a commitment that you’re willing to make
  • is specific enough to measure or observe it.
  • has a plan to overcome resistance

5. Finally, build in support

Going with whole grain only? What and who can support you when the going gets tough?  Maybe you work better with a buddy — someone who agrees to do the same thing. Just remember, your buddy will be most effective if he is equally committed. Or maybe its a friend you call or text when things get tough, or when you have a proud moment of saying “no” to an old habit. It would be great to get a virtual high-five when you text  “just said ‘no’ to bread on the table!” Having someone in your corner also helps because you have “gone public” with your commitment, and they are someone to whom you can be accountable.

There are also services you can use to “penalize” yourself for not keeping up your commitment like Stickk – a “commitment platform” where you place a bet on yourself, and if you don’t deliver, you owe your chosen recipient the amount you “bet” (think of having to contribute to your least favorite political party or giving money to the boss who fired you).  Like having a buddy, Stickk helps with accountability.

Before you start, I suggest a dry-run week — particularly if your change is a significant. A “warm-up week” will give you the experience of your new commitment:

Whole grains? Maybe warm up week is “whole grains when I’m at home” or changing breakfast first, then the other meals later. Your “trial” week could be any onramp you choose — maybe it’s only 5 of 7 days, or only certain times of the day.  Design it well and you’ll find yourself reading labels and asking questions at restaurants in anticipation of the full “only whole grains” commitment that might begin in week two.

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The warm-up week helps you ease into your new behavior and learn along the way, but because of the gentler on-ramp, it’s also enabling success.  A massive overnight change will be challenging — and you’ll most likely join the 92% who don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. So set yourself up … in a good way.

My food examples are just that — examples. I’m a strong believer that you need to find the food that nourishes your body. I know that my food journey is NOT for everyone. But I’m hoping you can benefit from my research into habits and my personal experience. And the research applies to whatever you’re hoping to change – be it your relationships, your career, or the dream you have yet to pursue.

Just remember the five steps:

  1. Focus on your behavior not the goal
  2. Take it seriously — make a commitment you can follow through on
  3. Make it specific — only black and white, no grey areas
  4. Consider your barriers and roadblocks, and a plan to overcome them
  5. Build in support – a buddy or support system

There’s clearly some work to be done if you want to join the successful 8% — but if it’s important, then it’s worth it. Not to mention, small changes, done consistently, can create big shifts.