As we roll into another new year, we can feel enormous pressure to reinvent ourselves, committing to unsustainable changes and resolutions. Given the events of the last two years, do any of us need the pressure of additional significant life changes?
Even outside of a global pandemic, adopting a ‘big bang’ approach to behavioural change isn’t always best. It can add needless pressure and disappointment to our already complex lives.
What’s the problem with making new year’s resolutions?
The downside of new year’s resolutions are clear once we step back from the excitement of telling everyone how, this year, it’s going to be different!
Firstly, we can find ourselves committing to changes that are simply inauthentic. They’re not who we really want to be, but are maybe instead expected of us by others. Whether it’s people close to us or just society at large, the pressure can be hard to avoid. Perhaps we sign up to resolutions because we think we should, rather than because we honestly feel like they’re a good idea.
Some resolutions are simply too vague to be actionable. Ever told others you’d be ‘healthier this year’? Or that ‘this is the year I’m going to get fit’? What do these commitments mean in practice? And how will you know if you’re doing it or not?
Sometimes we commit to changes that require a significant adjustment to our routines and how we spend our time. The classic example is the new gym membership. Once the novelty of early morning spin classes wears off, we find it to be an unsustainable chore. Our gym gear is left in the wardrobe, while our membership continues to be paid and our guilt at not going steadily increases.
Many of our resolutions will take significant work before we start to see the promised benefits. Whether it’s wellbeing, productivity, careers – it’s rare that you’ll see an impact in anything less than weeks. And many of us feel frustrated at the perceived lack of progress and give up long before the benefits can show up.
If this all sounds familiar, I’m simply underlining the point that New Year’s resolutions frequently take the form of badly-expressed goals.
While it’s natural to take advantage of a new year as an opportunity for a fresh start, that fresh start needn’t be disruptive, significant or costly. It doesn’t require a new you – it requires a focus on more of the you that you want to be.
What’s the alternative?
Rather than seeking out ‘Big Bang’ change, we can make changes at the level of our habits. The simple, everyday routines that define us. Even better, we can cultivate new habits that are in alignment with our values.
Helpful, healthy, positive habits can be tiny in scale but significant in their impact over time. Rather than looking for ‘big bang’ change, we simply focus on the consistency of application and watch as the benefits grow as the weeks and months pass. So, rather than expecting you’ll look like an Olympian after a week of exercise routines, you simply focus on consistently going for your daily walk each lunchtime.
The cultivation of new habits can start immediately, needn’t cost you a penny, and don’t lead to the guilt associated with abandoned new year’s resolutions. And unlike vague and demanding resolutions, we can tell immediately if we’ve done it or not. Whether it’s drinking a glass of water with each meal, taking the stairs over the escalator or blocking out time for a weekly review, it’s easy to tell whether or not you’re doing it.
Where do I start?
My suggestion is to think about your values – the words that describe the kind of person you want to be. What personal qualities do you want to exhibit more often? What aspects of life do you want to enjoy your consistently? Which of these is most important to you? Or maybe, which have you drifted from over time?
If the concept of personal values is new to you, check out this recording of a 2020 webinar all about the value of getting clear on your values.
Then, identify a simple habit that represents that value in action. If it’s about managing your boundaries, then the new habit could be to turn off your mobile phone during meal times. If the value you select is about your career, then the habit could be about daily practice of a professional skill.
Keep it simple, keep it small. The idea here is not that you’ll make a big change or see big results immediately. Instead, you’ll consistently do this small thing and accrue the benefits over time.
Once you’ve established the habit, you can of course add more habits to your routine. This neatly avoids any sense of overwhelming change and disruption to your life. Instead, it introduces your valued changes in a much more manageable way.
Keep a record
It’s also a good idea to track the habit in question. This could be as simple as crossing off the date in your paper diary, keeping a list in a notebook, or using one of the multitude of habit tracking apps out there. Each of these approaches gives you a powerful visual cue – a reminder in your environment – that this is an important action to complete. You can also get a sense of satisfaction when you see just how many days you’ve maintained this new habit.
Additionally, while you’re waiting for the benefits of the habit to become obvious, you can focus on the consistency of application and measurement. This can help you persist with the habit until its results are more obvious.
Habits over reinvention
So it’s less about ‘new me’ and more about ‘more of the me I want to be’. Small course adjustments to the journey of your life. And of course, you’re free to adjust the habit if you change your mind or life around you changes. You can also switch your focus to another one of your values in the months ahead.
I’d love to hear about the habits you’re keen to cultivate in 2022. Drop your ideas in the comments below.