Every year we set resolutions and every year we forget them, often before the shine is off the New Year.
As we head into a new year—and a new decade!—maybe it’s time to approach this admirable but often fruitless activity and work on forming new habits.
Habits are the less flashy cousins of the showier resolutions. Resolutions are often BHAGs—big, hairy, audacious goals; they make a statement. They say to the world, “I can do something that matters.” Habits are smaller, quieter, more straightforward, and often far less grand. But behind their modest exterior, habits are extremely powerful. Habits can change our lives.
Depending on who you follow in the world of habits, you might learn that it’s impossible to stop bad habits—that our only real chance is to replace the patterns that no longer serve us with new ones. This makes sense; habits are a well-worn groove in our brains. Our best hope is to form a new groove.
And for real: who doesn’t love a new groove.
Five easy pieces to habit formation
The trick to habit formation is to use an approach like the one that James Clear outlines in his book Atomic Habits (one of my top three book picks from 2019). You can get a jump start with this guide from James Clear.
- Make it ridiculously easy to say yes.
- Start small. Really small.
- Make incremental improvements; break down big habits into smaller ones.
- Track your progress. Note that I said progress, not perfection. You are looking at the trend. If you miss a day, get back on track, and don’t look back.
- Be patient and kind to yourself. Change takes time. When we rush, we burn out, and that can throw us back to square one.
As with resolutions, it’s tempting to go waaaaay overboard and come up with audacious goals.
Stop right there.
I want you to think small. Habits are building blocks for other larger habits, so trust me when I say that little things pay off. For example, developing a habit of getting up on a schedule can facilitate a whole slew of other habits: reading, exercise, quality family time, and more. Some of these habits offer multiple benefits and enable other habits that lead to accomplishing big goals. Whether you want to create a painting, write a book, learn data science, run a marathon, become flexible, all of these goals start with small habits.
So, here are 10 examples of things that you can do to start small to go big:
- Read for 15 or 30 minutes a day
- Exercise for 15 or 30 minutes a day
- Always take the farthest parking spot to get more steps into your day
- Always return the kitchen to ready before you go to bed
- Never leave dishes in the sink
- Wash underwear and socks every Friday
- Change your sheets on Tuesday
- Walk your dog before or after every meal
- Write a one-line summary of your day (learn more from Austin Kleon)
- Make some quick art to explore your feelings (learn more from Sam Bennett)
Pick one habit and start with that.
When it becomes automatic or nearly so, pick something else and add it to the mix. Most people select too many things and make them too big and too complicated. RESIST that temptation. Cut it waaaaay down.
Last year I started with a ridiculous list of habits that I wanted to work on, 15-20! I started with 3×5 cards and then graduated to a spreadsheet. Don’t do this. Habit tracking became a part-time job. I realized pretty quickly that I could reliably keep track of three things in my head. (Three is a magic number, after all.) So, I focused on three things. Pretty soon, those things became a regular part of my day. I did them without thinking. They became habits. Honestly, I felt like I won the habit lottery! One of my goals was to read more, 50 books a year, or about one book a week. So, I started by switching on the light when the alarm went off every morning and grabbing a book off the nightstand and reading for about 30 minutes. Was it hard at first? Yeah, a little. But now the alarm cues the light and the light signals the reading, and I am happy and amazed to report that I have read more than 50 books this year, something I never thought I would do. We also make the bed almost every day, and I write in my journal regularly. The kitchen stays cleaner, I make and finish more quilts, and I exercise more. I get 10 thousand steps or more most days thanks to my workout Buddy.
Now I want to work on my creative habits: quilting, painting, and writing. I also want to create a yoga habit and exercise every day. I want to cook more and eat better. I want to tackle some hard subjects.
Plenty of habits to work on in the new year!
So how do we get off track?
This TEDx talk by Amanda Crowell provides some critical insights into why we don’t do what we say we are going to do. It comes down to identity. If we don’t see ourselves as yoga practitioners, or writers or artists or learners, we won’t be successful in making long-term change in these areas. Take some time to reflect on how you see yourself now and how that fits with your habit goals.
Ready to start fresh?
20/20 is the standard for good eyesight, and as the New Year approaches, let’s put down those resolutions and commit to seeing ourselves more clearly and practicing the habits that we need to accomplish our goals.
Habits are habit forming! 🙂
Wishing you many good habits in the New Year!
You can learn more about developing habits from these great teachers:
James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (I loved the book and recommend his emails, too)
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Leo Babauta, Zen Habits (I recommend his emails)
Daily Stoic (I recommend the emails, and you can choose from daily or weekly formats)