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Why change is hard
My favorite word in the English language is intention. Considering how into productivity I am, it’s not even a contest.
Since writing about intention and productivity in The Productivity Project, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the idea. When we live and work productively, there is intention behind nearly everything thing we do.
But unless you’re a robot, it’s impossible to live and work with intention 100% of the time. That’s what’s so difficult about sticking with New Years resolutions, forming new habits and changing existing ones, and getting stuff done. So often, regardless of how strong our intentions are, things happen, and we fail to accomplish what we intend to. For example, we might:
- Start the workday with a grand master plan, until somewhere along the way sh*t hits the fan and we only get half of it done.
- Have a vision of a rock hard six-pack by summer and becoming VP by next year, but in the moment, we want nothing more than to grab a cheeseburger and sleep in for an extra couple of hours.
- Make New Year’s resolutions, but when life floods in, not stick with them. (One survey found that 92% of people fail at the resolutions they make—this was what motivated me to write an online guide to sticking with your resolutions a couple years back.)
This gap, between our intentions and our actions, is what productivity is designed to fix.
Some of us are better than others, and there are countless ways to live and work more deliberately. But the struggle is real. While everyone wants to achieve exactly what she or he intends to, at the same time, we’re not machines. Intention is what makes us human, and while it lies at the heart of productivity, in practice it is impossible to act intentionally all of the time.
It was with this idea in mind that I conducted my most recent productivity experiment—to make as many New Years resolutions as possible over the course of one month. As you might expect, particularly after I devoted an entire year of my life to experimenting with productivity, my habits were solid going into this one. Each week, I go to the gym a few times, eat healthy, meditate for 30 minutes every day, manage my stress well, and don’t drink too much. After my productivity project, it’d probably be more of a surprise if I didn’t have strong habits.
But even after overhauling my life during my project, I still found this experiment to be a challenge. For the entire month of December, I picked six of the most popular New Year’s resolutions out there, and made all of them at once (here they are in more detail):
- Eat zero processed foods
- Lose 10 pounds by the end of the month
- Save more money
- Spend way less time on social media
- Don’t complain, at all
- Learn something new and exciting (to juggle)
What gets in the way of our resolutions
Here’s a question that cuts to the heart of productivity: Why don’t we accomplish everything we intend to?
While some of the changes we implement are successful, I’d go so far as to guess that most of the changes we try to make don’t stick. Regardless of how strong your intentions are, it’s impossible to always act perfectly on them.
It would be amazing if we achieved everything we set out to. Yet even after investing in my productivity for more than a decade, and devoting an entire year of my life to carve out the best habits I possibly could, I still often don’t accomplish my goals. While I’m persistent as hell, the reality of making positive changes is that there’s simply so much that can get in the way of our intentions and resolutions, that no one is perfect at working changes into his or her life. (They’re lying if they say they are.)
It’s almost comical how much can get in the way of making changes. As a few examples:
- We don’t anticipate obstacles. Some obstacles are impossible to anticipate, and others aren’t. When we don’t think about what obstacles will get in the way of our intentions, they will.
- Urgent tasks feel more important than they actually are. In the moment, when it comes time to act on our resolutions, it’s easier to give in to work that is urgent instead of what’s important—like skipping the gym (“just this once”) to work on a pressing report for an extra half hour.
- Temptations are hard to resist. In the moment we crave different things than we do in the medium and long term. But we act on our intentions in the moment—and this is also where temptations live.
- We don’t adapt our goals as conditions change. As conditions change, our goals should change too. But it takes less thinking to continue trying to brute-force a habit into our life, as opposed to stepping back to think about how our original resolution should change.
- We expect too much from ourselves. We bite off more than we can chew, and we don’t have enough spare time, attention, and energy to put a change into practice.
- We’re living “at capacity.” We don’t leave a buffer of time for when the anticipated comes up—so when it does, it prevents us from accomplishing what we intend to.
- Our intentions aren’t strong enough. It’s possible for our intentions to be too weak, or disconnected with what we value, which makes it difficult for us to become motivated to achieve them. Strong intentions are clearer and better-defined: you choose when, where, how, and under what conditions you’ll do them. They also come from a genuine place, and are connected to what you care about on a deeper level. Some people make New Year’s resolutions that are simple, sepia-toned fantasies for how they want to live a better life.
These are seven things we have control over—despite how difficult they are to constantly consider in practice.
But something else that affects our resolutions and changes even more is the future. The future is impossible to predict, and by extension it’s impossible to predict the challenges, opportunities, and obstacles that it will throw your way. When we make resolutions, we lay out intentions that we plan to make in the future, and the further our goals are in the future, the more uncertain they become.
71% successful at this experiment
During this experiment, I found that almost every item on this obstacles list affected how successful I was. However, nothing made me slip up more than the obstacles the future brought with it. December is usually a hellish month to try to do anything, and if you’re like me, it’s full of more obstacles—many difficult to anticipate—than any other month. Here are just a few that got in the way for me:
- Traveling, for many hours on end
- Adapting my resolutions around my birthday, Christmas, and New Years
- Coming down with a wicked flu in the middle of the month
- Becoming a lot busier with family commitments than I anticipated
- Way too much temping food around Christmas and New Year’s1
Even after taking the time to anticipate all of the obstacles I possibly could during the month, I still ran into a ton of them. Here’s how I’d score myself (all subjectively, of course):
- Lose 10 pounds: 50% successful. By the New Year, I had lost five pounds. I peg my success at 50%, because while that’s a result I’d usually congratulate myself on, it was half my goal.
- Eat zero processed food: 75% successful. I was able to lose a good deal of weight because of how little processed food I ate, and how little liquor I drank. (Strange as it may sound, I firmly think eating fewer processed foods is one of the best things you can do for your productivity.)
- Learn to juggle: 15% successful. I totally dropped the ball with this one. On one day, I was able to dedicate a half hour to practicing (and have picked the practice back up in the new year). But I came down with the flu when I had intended to practice juggling during the holidays.
- Stop complaining: 95% successful. This challenge sapped my willpower like nothing else, but I managed to do a bang-up job.
- Cut back on social media: 100% successful. Judging from my RescueTime logs, I more than cut my social media time in half—I did this by deleting social media apps from all of my portable devices, and restricting access to them on my computer. Simple, but it worked.
- Save more money: 90% successful. This challenge also sucked up a fair deal of willpower, but it was actually kind of fun—by the end of the month, it turned into kind of a fun game to see how little money I could spend. Instead of Ubering around town, I took this bus; instead of buying fancy lattes I bought tea—all while putting the difference in an investment account. By the end of the month, I’d saved more than $500 that I would have spent otherwise.
When my resolutions derailed, they did so because of the obstacles I rhymed off above; the unpredictable nature of the future (coming down with the flu and having less time than I anticipated), constantly being surrounded by temptations, expecting too much from myself, and biting off more than I could chew.
The key to keeping your resolutions
But where I did do well—the 70% of the experiment that went right—I did well for a simple reason: intention. I like to practice what I preach.2 From the outset of this experiment, I tried to make these changes as intentionally as possible.
So what’s the practical bit? How can you live and work with more intention, so your changes stick?
Since it’s impossible to act on your intentions every single minute, productivity is more of an art than a science.3 But there are solid ways you can work to make any change to your life more deliberately—in general, every week, and in every moment.
There are thousands of tactical ways to work more deliberately every day, but in the interest of time, here are a few of my favorites that have worked the best for me!
Regardless of how big a change is, there are always obstacles waiting that will try to derail you from keeping it. Before you make a change, sit for 15 minutes with a pen and a sheet of paper, and consider every obstacle that will get in the way of you achieving your resolution. Not every obstacle can be predicted, but many can. Obstacles you can predict, you can usually avoid.
Spend your limited willpower wisely
You only have so much willpower to exert throughout one day—once that willpower dries up, it’s much harder to regulate your behavior. This is why, if you try to make a big change and resist temptations all day, you end up binge-watching Netflix at night while waiting for your pizza to be delivered. Be mindful of how much willpower you’re expending to make your resolutions stick, because you only have so much of it.
Find the habit equivalent of a change
Instead of a pie-in-the-sky goal like “this year, I’m going to work out more,” or “I’m going to get a six pack by the summer!” think about what habits you will need to form to get there. (Here’s a post I published a few weeks back on my favorite ways to carve out new habits.)
Become clearer about your intentions
For your resolution, decide ahead of time when, where, how, and under what conditions you’ll make the change. This one is easy to gloss over, and it takes some thought, but that thinking will pay for itself a hundred times over.
Make smaller changes
There’s nothing wrong with big, ambitious goals, but when you try to make colossal changes to achieve them, once your initial motivation dries up, so will your new habits. The key to making your life better is to make small changes, toward big goals.
Structure your environment
The environment you live and work in has countless cues embedded in it that trigger your habits. This is why, when you visit relatives during the holidays, you immediately fall into a different set of habits or find it easier to form new ones. Think about what you need to change in your environment to make your resolutions stick, like getting rid of junk food in your house, or deleting social media apps from your phone.
Set weekly and daily intentions
When you don’t step back on a weekly and daily basis to think about your changes, they won’t be top of mind when you need to spend time on them. At the start of every week, and at the start of every day, I have an intentions ritual, where I pick the three main things I want to have accomplished by the time the week and day is over. It’s a simple ritual, but it works wonders for bringing those big, high-level goals down to earth. It allows me to set daily intentions for how I’m going to achieve them. I highly recommend it.
Intention becomes the most powerful when you practice it in the moment.
This involves creating the conditions that will let you dive deeper and create more attentional space around your work. You can do this by:
- Single-tasking, so you don’t constantly shift your attentional spotlight from one task to another
- Disabling distractions and interruptions, especially on your devices
- Disconnecting from the internet whenever possible
This allows you to work more deliberately and create more attentional space around what you’re working on in the moment. The opposite of working with intention is working on autopilot, in response to the work that gets sent your way. Creating more space around the work that’s in front of you gives you the space to flip off autopilot mode, so you can change your intentions on the fly.
It’s in every moment that we make decisions that will make or break our productivity, and determine whether or not we achieve our goals. Creating more attentional space around our work lets us act in accordance with our long-term goals in the moment.
Setting grand goals doesn’t matter when we don’t act on them in the moment.
My definition of productivity is simple, regardless of how difficult it may be to achieve in practice: productivity is about achieving what we intend to.
If I had approached this experiment without any deliberateness or intention, especially given the obstacles I had to hurdle over, I would have failed—there’s no question about it.
Above any other truth about productivity that I’ve uncovered over the last decade, this is the truth that I’ve found to be the most important and the most profound: productivity is nothing without intention. This is true with intention in general, as well as intention on a weekly, daily, and moment-by-moment basis.
I would be lying if I said I practiced what I preached 100% of the time, and so would any other productivity writer out there. But I do practice what I preach most of the time—that is, on any day when Domino’s Pizza doesn’t have a good sale. ↩
Unless you’re an enlightened monk, in which case you probably wouldn’t be reading this. ↩