If you are like 45 percent of the population, you are earnestly preparing for an upcoming New Year’s resolution. You may also already know that only 8 percent of people achieve the resolutions they make for themselves, according to a study from the University of Scranton. What exactly does this 8 percent do differently? Do they set easier goals? Is it just willpower?
In his best-selling book, “Atomic Habits,” James Clear lays out the science for developing and keeping better habits and how consistent, incremental changes multiply like compound interest over time. By following the right strategies, you can be among the 8 percent of people who successfully complete their pledges, and in the process, see yourself become the kind of person you want to be.
Instead of Setting Goals, Change Habits
A few key points, which stood out to me from Clear’s work, coincide exactly with what I see in my clients as they work to change their behavior. First, focus on changing habits, not setting goals. Goals can set you in a direction, but they don’t include the gradual and consistent changes you will need to make to get there. These changes are habits. Goals make us less happy to the extent that we are unsatisfied until we achieve them, while a habit is a success every time we do it.
In addition, goals are finite. When we achieve them, we are done. Positive habits can continue and build on each other. For example, if you have a goal to master a piece of music, you may master it. If you create a habit of effectively practicing an instrument for one hour each day, you will eventually master that instrument.
Reward Yourself Along the Way
Clear describes the importance of pairing rewards with the new habits you are creating. Most people don’t use this strategy and instead rely on self-criticism to motivate themselves. Many positive habits take months or even years for their positive effects to become apparent; most people won’t continue something that provides no positive feedback for the length of time it takes to experience the rewards they are after. Therefore, when the self-criticism doesn’t work, they also feel like a failure.
Instead, Clear suggests pairing the positive habits you aspire to acquire with ones you already enjoy. For example, you could ride an exercise bicycle while you are watching your favorite shows or only get on Facebook after you have done 30 minutes of homework.
The key is to pair the habits together or insert the one you are working toward first, because then you will associate the habit you aspire to with something you already enjoy. After some repetition, they will be associated together and you will begin to anticipate the “reward” with the new good habit. Anticipating a reward is the key to keeping a new habit.
Changing How You See Yourself
What I found to be the most powerful idea in Clear’s book is the power of identity when it comes to our habits. Clear describes three levels of change with varying orders of magnitude. You can change outcomes, systems, or identity. Changes in identity—how you see yourself and your worldview—are the most powerful type of change. Over time, people tend to act in alignment with how they see themselves. You might see this principle reflected in yourself and the people around you.
If we want to create a significant change in habits, we have to see ourselves in line with the new behaviors we want to create. We have to envision ourselves as the kind of person who would act this way and then start to provide evidence to ourselves that we are indeed that person.
It can also help to spend time with people who share this view of themselves and of us. This makes it easier to associate ourselves with the new behavior by being part of a group of people who do this behavior.
As we continue to act in alignment with how we want to see ourselves, our viewpoint gradually shifts into becoming this person. And once we become this person, it is easier to stay that way than it is to change back.
How to Stay on Track With Your New Year’s Resolutions
- Focus on developing better habits, not setting goals.
- Use the power of anticipation to pair your new behavior with something you already find rewarding until you associate the new behavior with the reward.
- Envision yourself as a person who engages in your new desired behavior. Associate yourself with other people who already do this consistently.
- Envision yourself as a life-long learner, and read or listen to Jame Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits.” He will provide you with a cornucopia of resources and ideas to make you more likely to achieve your resolution.
A Case Study
Jeffrey comes into my office. He has had depression on and off since he was a teenager. While we were investigating what causes Jeffrey’s depression and what his life looks like without it, Jeffrey says that he is able to maintain good eating, sleeping, and exercise habits when he isn’t depressed. In fact, his first depression occurred in high school when he sprained his ankle and had to take six weeks off from his track and field team, and he couldn’t exercise.
We surmised that exercise was the key starting point for Jeffrey to undo his cycle of depression, and it would be easier to return to a positive cycle with his sleep and eating if he could develop regular exercise habits.
Regular exercise is as effective as antidepressant medication in the short term and even more effective in the long term for relieving depression. After leaving my office, Jeffrey felt hopeful and motivated. He just needed to start running again, something he always loved to do anyway, to improve his depression.
The next week, he flops down on my couch with his head buried in his hands. He ran the first two days after our session, and he was feeling really positive about himself. Starting on the third day he felt depressed and he hasn’t gone running since then, and he has been binge eating junk food and mindlessly surfing the internet for hours each day—just what he committed not to do. Why does Jeffrey end up back here, despite knowing that exercise is the key to getting himself back on track?
- First I analyzed what got Jeffrey off track last week. I had a series of questions to ask Jeffrey to find out what happened; the essence of the problem was that he was expecting to feel better right away after he exercised. He became disappointed and hopeless when the results were not immediate, as predicted by James Clear’s model of outcome-based thinking.
- I normalized Jeffrey’s feelings of disappointment in himself to deactivate the power of the shame that was weighing on him and stopping him from moving forward.
- Jeffrey recommitted to taking the action that will help him break his downward spiral.
- I spent some time talking to Jeffrey about the times in his life when he was exercising regularly and in good shape. I got him to remember the positive aspects of those times as vividly as possible, and then I linked those memories with Jeffrey’s present self by pointing out the traits and characteristics he shares with that earlier version of himself. This is how I worked on the identity aspect of the habits. The same Jeffrey that is here today, was an athlete in the past so he still knows how to be one now.
- We discussed ways to pair rewarding behavior with exercise. Jeffrey always likes to talk on the phone with his brother and niece so he committed to arranging a time to talk with his brother after each workout.
The next week, Jeffrey went running three times and went to the gym twice. He also developed a closer relationship with his brother. Within seven weeks, Jeffrey was exercising and sleeping regularly again, and depression began to lift. You can break out of your ruts and create new positive habits for yourself in 2020 by employing the right strategies.
Michael Courter is a therapist and counselor who believes in the power of personal growth, repairing relationships, and following your dreams. His website is CourterCounsel.com.
Do you have questions about relationships or personal growth that you would like Michael to address? Send them to mc@CourterCounsel.com.