When I think of a brand new year, I envision a beautiful, tranquil lake, so still that it mirrors everything surrounding it. Nothing has happened yet to disturb or disrupt that peaceful surface. Our actions are like pebbles thrown into the lake that ripple out, changing the reflection in the mirror and rearranging the landscape in expected and surprising ways.
The new year is a natural time to reflect. And many people make resolutions. Each January, membership at my gym swells beyond normal limits as new members seek to shrink and tone. The influx of new members, however, is generally a temporary state as many membership cards stagnate in unused gym bags. Why? Because habit change is difficult, and turning a page in the calendar does not magically transform us into different people. If you made resolutions this year, there are strategies to support you in sticking with them. If you have already broken a resolution, read on to discover how you can get back on track while it’s still January.
Every goal should be “SMART”—specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. For example, instead of generally resolving to lose weight, specify how many pounds, and establish a timeframe. I coached a client who wanted to lose 10 pounds in three months and get in shape without joining a gym. The first thing I asked her to do was collect data—what was she eating and drinking? She wrote everything down and realized that drinking sweetened iced tea all day and eating at night while watching television were both the biggest culprits and fairly easy to eliminate because the calories were being consumed mindlessly, so she didn’t miss either habit that much. To get in shape, she sampled various television fitness programs and found one that suited and challenged her. She achieved her goal in two months instead of three because it was SMART.
Go public. If you are finding it easy to bypass your intentions, don’t keep them a secret. Arianna Huffington resolved to get more sleep in 2016. She told Business Insider: “My resolution is to embrace my own message when it comes to getting enough sleep—which, for me, means seven to eight hours. Ninety-five percent of the time, I do it. But my new book, ‘The Sleep Revolution,’ comes out in April, and having been through book tours before, I know they’re not necessarily conducive to a healthy, sane, rejuvenating sleep schedule. So the timing is perfect, because I firmly believe in the power of certain milestone moments to help us hold ourselves accountable and make changes in our lives. And going public with it (like this) is a really good way to make the commitment stick.”
Every goal should be “SMART”—specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. For example, instead of generally resolving to lose weight, specify how many pounds, and establish a timeframe.
If you are not a media titan, there are other ways of going public. You can use social media to declare your goal and track progress or tell everyone you know what you’re planning to do. A client going on a business trip was worried she would not maintain her eating plan and decided to tell co-workers about her goal, enlist their help, and was successful.
Anticipate the limits of your willpower. If you are finding it difficult to stick to your goal, it may be too big and require some strategic chunking down. Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister has studied and published articles about willpower for years and teamed up with science writer John Tierney on the book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” While we often castigate ourselves for difficulties with following through, Baumeister’s research demonstrates that willpower is a limited resource. Like a muscle, it becomes fatigued from use, which Baumeister calls “ego depletion.” Just as weight training builds strength, so does exercising self-control. The authors suggest building up self-control with modest and regular practices such as tidying up and improving posture. Be on the lookout for ego fatigue as a precursor to derailment. Again, it is important to be realistic in setting goals so they can be achieved without exhausting resources and create a path for following through in the future.
Change one habit at a time. A corollary to an overwhelming goal is making too many resolutions at once. Baumeister and Tierney posit that when people try to make big changes in their lives, the efforts are undermined if they are making other changes, too.
Be an early bird. Do you find that when the day is over you have not accomplished what you set out to do? Baumeister’s research demonstrates that decision-making is exhausting, even when the impact of the choices is minor. As a professional, you spend your day making decisions and others look to you for recommendations on important matters. Ask yourself how likely it is that you will follow through on a resolution at the end of a workday.
Experiment with times of day, depending on your goal, but if you plan on first thing in the morning, chances are greater that you will – accomplish it.
Strategically minimize temptations. Use experience to figure out what has derailed you in the past and make a plan to avoid it. For example, if you want to be more productive at work, create a plan for limiting disruptions and distractions that lure you from important tasks. Close the door to your office and clear away visual clutter that competes for attention.
Track your progress. And, as the saying goes, there’s an app for that. You can outsource self-control with resources available online. A few examples are stickK.com, quantifiedself.com, and loseit.com. Many people enjoy wearing their intentions on their wrists with a Fitbit, Jawbone and other activity-tracking devices. Documenting progress is beneficial because it provides a sense of accomplishment and also demonstrates that you can do it. If you walked a mile a day last month, then you know you can do it again. It is no longer a theoretical pipe dream, but a realistic, achievable outcome.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Social psychologist Emily Balcetis explained in a TED talk why many people break New Year’s resolutions by Valentine’s Day. She conducted an experiment to test perception of distance by exercisers. One group was trained to focus their attention on the finish line, avoid looking around and to imagine a spotlight was shining on the goal, and that everything around it was blurry and perhaps difficult to see. The other group was encouraged to look around. “People who kept their eyes on the prize saw the finish line as 30 percent closer than people who looked around as they naturally would,” she said. This strategy also made exercise seem easier. She said we can teach ourselves to see things differently, and, “When we find a way to make the world look nicer and easier, it might actually become so.” Ask yourself how you can develop tunnel vision when it comes to an important goal.
Reward yourself. The benefits of working toward a reward have been widely researched and written about and I have seen it firsthand as a coach. Habit change is challenging and every step in the desired direction is worth celebrating with something tangible and meaningful. If you are giving up something, find a replacement aligned with your intentions and values. The reward should be as specific and measurable as the goal itself. Write it down as part of your accountability plan: “When I _______, I will reward myself with ___________.” Ricky Gervais, who has shed pounds and gotten into shape over the last few years, joked on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that he visualizes his reward this way: “As I’m running, I’m thinking, ‘That’s one beer, that’s two beers.'”
If your goal is SMART and borne out of true belief that your life will improve by attaining it, there is nothing standing in the way of achieving it except, perhaps, you.
Reprinted with permission from the January 28, 2016 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.almreprints.com