Turning Resolutions Into Lifelong Habits

Image: Sandra Strait - flickr.com/photos/aceo - Flickr Creative Commons


by Aiden Arnold

on January 2, 2015

The following first appeared on the blog Dharma In Every Wave

Here is one of the most disappointing statistics that I know:

 Just 8% of people who set New Year’s resolutions end up achieving them.

The rest — 92% of people who set them — drop the resolution at some point and don’t end up changing their lives to be more in line with their desires. Often, this isn’t because the resolution wasn’t achievable. In truth, most resolutions are small behavioural changes like eating healthier food, getting in better physical shape, or learning to meditate. The reason why people so often struggle with implementing these changes is because we’re never explicitly taught how to frame long term personal goals and establish effective systems to ensure their realization.

Most of us want to develop aspects of our lives that we see as underserved. We want to learn and grow. We want to bring new things into our lives that increase our well being. We want to find ways to better express who we are inside to the world around us. And yet, changing our personal status quo can seem nearly impossible.

Over a large portion of my early and mid twenties, I struggled with creating a positive work habit. Each New Year’s I would tell myself that this is the year that I’m going to work harder and at a higher quality. I would take time to organize my work schedule (often in flux, due to university and multiple jobs), define a skill or two I wanted to develop that would influence my work output (e.g. writing better, reading quicker) and use the initial enthusiasm to start work on fulfilling my resolution.

And then, over a matter of weeks, my enthusiasm would dwindle and I’d inevitably slip back into old patterns.

Sure, through experience my work quality would increase and my career would advance, but my personal assessment of my work life rarely changed for the better. And then, one year in my late 20s, I had a key insight that would help me change many of my daily behaviours for the better:

The most effective goals in our lives are about patterns, not outcomes. 

This may seem unintuitive at first. We’re often under the impression that a goal is something to obtain — getting a substantial raise, reaching a new personal best at the gym, reading a book a week for a year. I believe this comes, in part, from our society conditioning us to measure personal growth through successful milestones rather than the often hard to see trend lines of our behaviours. We set up to do lists, micro manage tasks to get to a specific objective and have emotional attachment (positive or negative) to progression towards the outcome.

While to do lists and sub tasks are useful in initially framing our goals, they have limited utility in generating the motivation we need to actually reach them. This is where the power of patterns comes in. It’s in consistency of action that our potential is unlocked, not in the daily outcome of that action.

The Power Of Patterns

If you want to eat healthier, take five minutes a day to find one simple healthy recipe that looks appetizing to you. You don’t actually need to cook it. You’ll soon find that you know more about cooking healthy food than unhealthy, and over time you’ll begin to incorporate those meals with high frequency.

If you want to get in better shape, commit to going to the gym every day or every second day. This doesn’t mean committing to working out at the gym. It simply means going to the gym, even if you turn around and walk out the door.

If you want to learn to meditate, commit to meditating for 1 minute a day.

The most important thing is to commit to a small action that is related to your resolution, and do it at a set interval no matter what else is going on in your life. The reason this is so effective is twofold.

First, small actions are easier to accomplish on a daily basis. Of course, the desired outcome may require more effort than the small action you’ve committed too (for example, daily 1 minute meditations will only get you so far towards being able to do a week long meditation retreat). But we can use small actions to bypass negatively intervening thoughts that limit our ability to create and sustain habitual behaviour. It’s admittedly pretty hard to make up excuses why you can’t meditate for a single minute a day. This goes a long way to instilling a daily pattern of behaviour that can then be altered.

The second reason it’s so effective is that the range of intensity of a behaviour — how long or hard you can do an activity for — is related to the frequency of its occurrence in the past. What this means is that you’ll have an easier time moving your daily meditation habit from 1 minute a day to 10 minutes a day than starting a 10 minute habit and maintaining it for a month. This is because it is cognitively easier for us to keep doing something we’re already doing than to initiate an intense behaviour. By meditating 1 minute a day you’ll often find that you spend a longer period of time than the required 1 minute because you’re already doing something that is meaningful to your personal development. That generates positive thoughts/emotions that help prolong the activity.

Because life happens and things come up that require you to refocus your attention, it is important when creating patterns to have a backup plan in case you miss a day. Don’t feel guilty if this occurs — it happens to all of us. Ensure that the next day you pick up where you left off no matter what. Behavioural patterns — especially at the beginning — strengthen only through repetition and it’s really important to do everything you can to not alter the pattern more than once in a short span of time.

Defining A System For Change

A simple system to identify patterns you want to incorporate in your life is as follows:

  1. Identify an outcome you want (e.g. I want to get in better shape)
  2. Identify a key behaviour that is vital to this outcome (e.g. working out at the gym)
  3. Identify a minimal action of that leads to the key behaviour (e.g. driving/walking to the gym)
  4. Commit to doing that minimal action with a specific frequency (e.g. once a day or once every second day)
  5. Allow the intensity of the key behaviour to vary at the beginning, but ensure that the minimal action is always performed
  6. Increase the intensity over time, allowing yourself to decrease it if you find the level of intensity starts to dissuade you from performing the minimal action.

Using this system, I’ve been able to accomplish many of the things that I wanted in my early and mid 20s. I got in better shape. I starting working more effectively, which made me enjoy what I do more. I starting writing at a level I’m happy with. My relationships grew and I created a more confident self image. My hope going into 2015 is that you’ll be able to find similar success using it.

Aiden Arnold is a Visiting Research Scholar at the University of California Davis where he spends his days thinking about how neural networks in the brain shape our ability to think about and interact with the world around us.  He is co-authoring a book about Surfing, Spirituality and Neuroscience with his best friend, Jean-Michel Logan. Please visit their website at: dharmaineverywave.com