To make 2021 as great as last year was terrible, many people made wonderful New Year’s resolutions — about health, wealth, relationships, projects, ambitions.
A month later, most of those resolutions are shards around our still-sedentary feet. There’s got to be a better way to turn your life around than by promising, on a single random day, that everything will be different from now on.
According to data cruncher Statista, the top New Year resolutions for American adults over the past several years are all the usual suspects: save money; lose weight; exercise more; eat healthier; drink less; spend more time with loved ones; read more; “doomscroll” less; quit smoking; learn new skills and hobbies.
Interestingly, in recent years, money concerns have crept up the list while kicking the smoking habit has dropped to the bottom. That’s because economic stresses have grown while smoking rates have dropped. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking reached an all-time low in 2018 at just 13.7 percent of adults.
How do people quit something as addictive as smoking? Godspeed if you can stick to a cold-turkey resolution. For most of us, serious personal change seems to require superhuman effort.
But that’s the wrong way to approach the problem, experts agree. To change daily patterns, don’t shoot for glory. Start small and focus on the process, not the goal.
“Don’t declare, I’m going to be a better person,” said Suzanne Mitchell, professor of behavioral neuroscience and psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “The better way to look at it is, specific behavior changes to create better habits.”
What is a habit?
“A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed routinely — and in many cases, automatically,” author James Clear writes in his 2018 book “Atomic Habits.” Habits are energy-saving behavior patterns — shortcuts — we build to solve the problems and meet the needs and desires of life.
Going to the gym, eating leafy greens, practicing the saxophone every day — those may start out conscious, intentional habits. But if you keep repeating them, they’ll become automatic. According to one study, that can begin in as few as 18 days of repetitions.
Mitchell’s favorite example of an automatic habit is driving. It may be second nature now, but do you remember how complicated it was to learn?
“You start out making a big mental effort,” she said. “When I learned to drive, I had to focus hard and I was exhausted after my lessons. There’s no way I could have had a conversation with anyone.” Her mind was laboring to stay conscious and in control of so many variables inside and outside the car: hands, feet, pedals, gears, speed, roadway, other vehicles, pedestrians.
Mastering such complexity and anxiety seems miraculous, but most of us manage.
“Driving became a habit, which permitted me to free up mental resources,” Mitchell said. “It took so much less energy. I could talk. I could sing along to the radio. I could relax my knuckles on the wheel.”
Our lives are chock full of habits: what we eat, what we wear, routes we take, activities we pursue. For the most part, habits are labor-saving devices. If you are constantly navigating the minutia of life — always paying panicked attention to driving your car — you won’t have much room for anything else.
That’s why Clear views the right kinds of habits as freeing us up, not tying us down.
“The people who don’t have their habits handled are often the ones with the least amount of freedom,” he writes. “Without good financial habits, you will always be struggling for the next dollar. Without good health habits, you will always seem to be short on energy.”
Habits can also be destructive.
“Once your habits are established, they seem to stick around forever — especially the unwanted ones,” Clear writes. “Despite our best intentions, unhealthy habits like eating junk food, watching too much television, procrastinating and smoking can feel impossible to break.”
Don’t feel too badly about that. Our own smarts have made us wickedly good — too good for our own good — at satisfying ancient cravings and reinforcing habits that don’t serve our needs.
“After spending hundreds of thousands of years hunting and foraging for food in the wild, the human brain has evolved to place a high value on salt, sugar and fat,” Clear writes. Today’s food scientists are experts at engineering the “bliss point” of any processed food so it “excites your brain and keeps you coming back for more.”
You’ve got major goals. A solo at the Metropolitan Opera. A marathon win in Boston. A fashionable slink down a Paris runway.
Got all those glories fixed in your head? Now forget them. Focus on today only. Build a baby habit.
“Success is the product of daily habits, not once-in-a-lifetime transformations,” Clear writes. That’s why he titled his book, “Atomic Habits,” with the name of the smallest unit of matter. Like atoms, tiny behavior patterns look like nothing at all but they contain awesome power.
“Small changes … don’t seem to matter very much in the moment,” he writes. “If you save a little money now, you’re still not a millionaire. If you go to the gym three days in a row, you’re still out of shape.”
The pace of change is so slow, it can be invisible, which is pretty unappealing to a culture fixated on results, outcomes and achievements.
Starting small is a good thing, Clear emphasizes. Don’t worry about your grand goal, which will take care of itself if you just start making a modest, manageable, sustainable effort now.
“A new habit should not feel like a challenge,” writes Clear, who suggests a “Two-Minute Rule” as the perfectly painless way to launch a new habit. Your goal might be running miles and miles, but the baby habit that starts you in that direction could be as easy as jogging for two minutes.
That’s a baby step indeed, but you can’t build on a habit that doesn’t exist yet. If you exercise or practice your new skill for all of two short minutes per day, he writes, “you are casting votes for your new identity.”
“It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now,” Clear writes. “What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”
Fun and rewarding
OK, you’ve tried forgetting about your grand goal in favor of building baby habits. You’re going to practice singing daily. You’re going to jog the neighborhood. You’re going to snack on fruit, not Ring Dings.
Now let’s think more carefully. What will really work better for you, a grapefruit or an apple? Singing alone, or with a fun instructional video or private teacher? Jogging alone, or with your favorite tunes or podcast, or with a jogging buddy to gab with as you go?
Making new habits fun and enjoyable in the moment, or at least rewarding in some tangible way, is the real key to behavior change, Mitchell said.
Humans can be oddly irrational. Give them solid information — tell them that eating fruits and veggies, quitting smoking and getting exercise will add years to their lives — and they’ll still resist, because there’s no instant payoff.
“It seems difficult for people to take the long view,” Mitchell said. “People like immediate results.”
Therefore, consider what will really work for you. If you’re never going to love running, try walking or dancing.
If the whole idea of exercise is nothing but torture for you, try rewards. Three workout sessions in a row could equal a leisurely bubble bath, Mitchell said. Three healthy meals in a row could equal a mental vacation with your favorite movie. Three French language lessons could mean a fancy French meal.
“Don’t let others choose your rewards,” Mitchell added. “Choose rewards for yourself. The right reward can be incredibly effective.”
Tracking effort may be reward enough for some. Draw a smile or a muscle dude on your calendar every time you do five pushups. Drop a marble in a jar every time you finish a page of the book you’re reading (or writing).
“Making progress is satisfying,” Clear writes, “and visual measures … provide clear evidence of your progress.”
Dropping $25 in your vacation piggybank instead of ordering takeout may eventually equal a slimmer waist and an Alaskan cruise. That reward strategy does require long-delayed gratification, something many of us aren’t very good at. The growing pot of money will not only make you smile, though. It’ll take on its own momentum, driving how you decide to spend and save. That’s a happy, healthy new habit.
Make it easy, make it hard
There’s a fancy gym all the way across town and a cheap one right nearby. Mitchell knows which one to choose: the one you’ll actually go to.
“Think carefully about what you’re really going to do,” she said. “Make it easy on yourself.”
If you’re trying for more fruit but unlikely to struggle past the peel of a grapefruit, go with a convenient apple. If you’re trying to eat a healthier breakfast, prepare it the night before so it’s ready to go. If you’re practicing the clarinet, don’t pack the instrument away — leave it out so it’s easy to grab.
By contrast, Mitchell added, try making the habits you want to lose more difficult and inconvenient. If you want to cut down on drinking, don’t bring booze home from the market. If you intend to stop reaching for your phone like it’s a security blanket, pack it away for an hour. If you want to cut down on TV time, consider unplugging the box so it takes more effort and intention to decide to watch.
“Come into it realizing that change can be effortful,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes there are going to be setbacks, and that’s OK.”