How are your New Year’s resolutions going? Have you given up on any of them yet? Some of them? The whole lot? Did you fail by the end of the first week of January? If so, consider yourself in good company.
Have you noticed how many gyms advertise membership specials in December and January? The gyms do this because they understand human psychology. They know perfectly well that people will approach Christmas thinking, “I’m not in great shape, I hardly exercise and now we’ve got all these big meals coming up. Time to get to a gym!” People give themselves permission to indulge throughout the break because, well, it’s the holidays and you have to cut yourself some slack. But by God, the minute January hits they are going to fill up their Adidas bag and hit the gym three times per week. And damn it all, they are going to stick to the routine this time. No excuses.
We all know how this ends.
Resolutions are pointless. They are destined to fail because they aren’t based on any actions that support true change. If you really want to accomplish something this year, consider doing this instead:
Chop your list
I’m not sure if guilt is behind our tendency to want wholesale change at the start of each new year, or delusion. Either way, it’s not going to happen. Why? Because we pile far too many items on our list of goals. My husband, Mark, is very fond of reminding me there is ample research showing that the ability to multitask is a myth. He usually pulls this information out at inconvenient moments for me, but the bottom line is that we are wired to do things sequentially; we can do only one thing at a time.
Set yourself up for success by choosing a single item to work on this month. Focus entirely on this one item for for the next thirty days, and when you’ve made significant progress, turn your attention to a second item.
Small action steps
Once you know what you want to work on – let’s assume you want to tackle your credit card bill – you need to break down the goal into achievable steps. If, for example, you want to wipe out your credit card debt, it’s not effective to say, “That’s it, I’m not spending on anything other than absolute essentials from here forward.” You’ll fail by Friday, and then you will spend the rest of the year either justifying your expenditures (e.g. beer on Friday really is a need) or beating yourself up for the failure. Neither is helpful.
Instead, consider breaking up the goal into manageable chunks. Maybe you decide that you’re only going to eat out once this month and you set a cap on the amount you’ll spend. Or you decide to ferret through your basement to find the many items you no longer use, and you use the cash from the sale of the items to pay off debt. Or you decide to use only cash this month to get a better handle on where your money goes.
Focus on action steps that are easily doable right now, not something that requires a Herculean effort. If you owe $2,000 on your credit card, target the first $100, then the next, and so on. One hundred dollars is doable; two thousand dollars is daunting.
Pick something you can wrap your brain around.
Focus on habits
We are a product of the million and one habits that run our lives. Everything we do, say and think is underpinned by habits. Just think about taking a shower: do you always wash your hair first or soap yourself up? I’m betting you go through pretty much the same sequence every time.
If we want to get different results in an area of our lives, we have to tackle the habits related to that area. Master the habits, and you can achieve just about anything.
Back to our example of wanting to wipe out credit card debt: it’s worth thinking about how you got into debt in the first place. How do you use your credit cards? When do you use them? Are there any patterns that you can spot? When do you shop? Why do you shop? Where do you shop? All these questions will help to uncover the habits that led you to be in debt.
Once you’ve identified a pattern, decide which step you will take first to lay down a new, healthier habit that serves your goal. Start small, and when you’ve established a better habit, tackle another, and then another one.
Your habits are critical to success.
Track your progress
Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, is obsessed with getting results. One of the things that he demonstrates so convincingly in his books is that in order to get results, you need to track your progress. Take a baseline measurement (i.e. where you are today) and chart your progress through any goal. Make the chart visible.
Want to change the garbage that you eat? Photograph it before it goes into your mouth and post it on your fridge. While you’re at it, track your measurements (all of them), what you eat (all of it) and when you eat. Photograph yourself at regular intervals so that you can see your progress and make adjustments if something isn’t working.
This works for debt too. Create a chart with your starting point and today’s date. Note all payments and expenditures. Track your progress. It’s exciting when you start to see significant results, and it’s obvious when you’re not getting anywhere. Either way, the information is useful to help you stay the course or adjust for better results.
Don’t get discouraged by failure; learn from it and change your actions.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of having BHAGs – Big Hairy Ass Goals. I have two staring me in the face, on my office wall, as I write this. They motivate me, and they also scare the crap out of me. The reason I’m slowly making my way toward those goals is because I have trained my sights on much smaller goals. Baby steps on the road to bigger goals. I do this because I know that
aiming high is a great way to paralyze myself into inaction. When the goals seems too big and unmanageable, all sorts of demons can get in the way – self doubt, insecurity, overwhelm, uncertainty, and procrastination.
Figure out the big-picture goal that scares and excites you all at once, then focus on the smaller steps that will get you there. And back to item #1: you get to focus on one step, not twelve.
Give it a try and let me know how you make out. I’m betting that you’ll make much better use of your gym membership this year if you use this approach.