Now that you’ve clearly defined your goals and come up with a plan to use habits to your advantage in the new year, here are five more things to seriously consider including in New Year’s plan, including: peer pressure, a way to avoid the “progress trap”, a message from yourself (from the future!), and structure.
The behaviour of your friends, family, and coworkers is incredibly contagious. Take obesity, for example.
One (massive) study wanted to determine just how contagious obesity was, so researchers analyzed the weight and social relationships between 12,000 people over 65 years (everyone in the study lived in the same small town). What they found was incredible:1
“When a friend became obese, a person’s own future risk of becoming obese increased by 171% percent. A woman whose sister became obese has a 67 percent increased risk, and a man whose brother became obese had a 45% percent increased risk.”
In other words, obesity is pretty similar to an infectious airborne illness like the flu. Other studies have also found similar effects for habits like drug use, sleep deprivation, and depression.2
What can you do about it?
Kelly McGonigal, the author of the terrific book, The Willpower Instinct, offers up a few suggestions of things to be aware of:
- Pay special attention to the habits of the people you like more. Their behaviour will be much more contagious to you.
- Look for friends, family members, and coworkers that have the same social ‘infections’ as you.
- Ask yourself: are there certain friends you’re more likely to indulge with?
- Think hard: did you pick up a bad habit from a friend or family member?
McGonigal also offers up a few awesome, practical tips to use peer pressure to stick to your goals:
- Look for people in your network who have tried to rewire the same habits you’re struggling with, or have mastered better ones already. And if you’re serious about using peer pressure to stick to your resolutions, spend more time with those people.
- “Spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day thinking about your own goals, and how you could be tempted to ignore them” because of the people around you.
- Look for a tribe of people that shares your goals, like a running club, book club, or a Stop Snacking Club. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t exist.)
- Look for a magazine (or blog!) that shares your goals.
We adapt our behaviours to the environments we put ourselves in, which is why social ‘infections’ spread so fast. Being mindful of that effect, while changing your environment to better fit your goals will turn the tables on peer pressure, and let you use it to stick to your New Year’s resolutions.
I think creating a plan for how you will use peer pressure to your advantage is something that belongs in almost every New Year’s resolution plan, especially if your resolutions will require a lot of willpower to achieve.
A way to avoid the “progress trap”
Tracking your progress on your goals can be surprisingly counterproductive.
Need a little proof? Take these two studies:3
- Researchers at the University of Chicago ran a study where they reminded successful dieters of their progress, and then offered them a choice between an apple and a chocolate bar as a reward. When dieters were reminded of their progress, 85% of them chose the chocolate bar over the apple, compared to just 58% with participants who weren’t reminded.
- A second study reminded students of how much they studied for exams, and found that students who were reminded of their progress were much likelier to spend the night partying.
Why is this the case? According to Kelly McGonigal, “[w]hen you make progress toward your long-term goal, your brain – with its mental checklist of many goals – turns off the mental processes that were driving you to pursue your long-term goal”. Then, it becomes more focused on getting satisfaction from indulging, because your brain feels like it has met its goal, and “any temptation will become more tempting”.
Even your to-do list isn’t safe. When you write up a to-do list, you feel productive because you’re capturing all you need to do, but research has shown that you’re less likely to actually do it because capturing everything you need to do feels like you’re making progress.
What can you do to combat The Progress Trap?
Just like with using peer pressure to your advantage, McGonigal offers up a few suggestions in The Willpower Instinct:
- “View your actions as evidence that you are committed to your goal.”
- Always remind yourself why you want to reach your goal, especially as you reach milestones along the way.
- Look at your accomplishments to see that you really do care about your goal, “so much so that you want to do even more to reach it”.
- After you make positive steps toward a goal, ask yourself: “how committed do you feel toward that goal?” Don’t ask yourself how much progress you’ve made toward it.
Tracking your progress toward your goals sounds like a great idea on the surface, but it can be detrimental to your productivity if you don’t do it right. It’s important to track progress on your goals to know when you’ve reached your milestones, but make sure you view your actions as signs that you’re committed to your goal, and constantly question why you want to reach your goal in the first place. When you do so, research has shown that you’ll be a lot more successful in sticking to your resolutions.
Yourself, from the future
You’ve likely made the mistake of thinking future-you will be a lot stronger than your present-you: that future you has unlimited self-control, doesn’t procrastinate, and has boundless energy for all tasks, regardless of how gruelling or boring they will be. (Why wouldn’t I buy this collection of Jane Austin novels for $20? I’m bound to read them someday!) And if you’re like me, future-you is also a lot more rested and relaxed than the tired, stressed out version of you that’s reading this book right now.
One study even found that when we think of our future selves our brain activity is nearly identical to when we think of another person!4
This has consequences, of course. People who see their future-selves as stronger, better versions of their present-day selves make bad decisions that compromise their future happiness and success. Research has shown that people with lower future-self continuity are later for appointments, make less ethical business decisions, save less for their retirement, lie more often, are more likely to pocket money they find in a coworker’s office, and are also more likely to leak information that would ruin a coworkers career. 5
A man by the name of Hal Hershfield devised a measurement of how closely a person identifies with their future-self, named their “future-self continuity”.6
It’s totally worth pausing for a few seconds to think about where you fall in the spectrum above. According to Hershfield, “what our research has [shown] is that if people think of their future selves as a different person altogether … then that has deep implications”, particularly with saving money.7
In a nut, having a low future-self continuity makes you more impulsive, and less mindful of the consequences of your actions, while having a high future-self continuity lets you be the best version of yourself now.
If you think you have a low future-self continuity, here are a few proven ways to get in touch with your future-self that you should include in your New Year’s plan:
- Send an email to your future self. Seriously, do it. FutureMe.org lets you send an email to yourself in the future at a date you specify. A great way to bridge the gap between your present and future selves is to tell your future self how your current actions will benefit yourself in the future.
- Imagine your future self. Research has shown that all it takes to increase your future-self continuity is to imagine yourself in the future. The more vivid the future feels, the better.
- Download AgingBooth, or a similar app that shows you what you will look like down the road. That might sound like a funny suggestion on the surface (even though the app is a lot of fun), but it’s been shown to increase your future-self continuity. “Hershfield and his colleagues found that when computer simulators were used to show people what they might look like 20 or 30 years from now, participants who were shown the photos allocated 6% of their hypothetical paycheck to retirement, while those who didn’t see “future self” photos only saved about 4%—a seismic difference since the earnings on your retirement savings compound over time.”8
Vignette: Quit Smoking
by Terry Martin
There are a few resolutions that require more tailored advice (in particular: quitting smoking, saving more money, getting organized, and eating healthier), and in those cases I’ve invited an expert on those topics to provide a few quick tips to help you achieve your goals.
“Quitting smoking is easy; I’ve done it hundreds of time. It’s staying quit that’s tough.”
So it goes with nicotine addiction, a wily opponent that hammers away at our determination to quit for the long term almost as soon as we stub out the last cigarette that signals the start of smoking cessation.
If you’d like to make this quit attempt the one that sticks for good, use the tips below to build a strong foundation for the smoke-free life you’re dreaming of.
1. Read, Read, Read. From what to expect physically and emotionally when you stop smoking, to ways to deal with the challenges that come with recovery from nicotine addiction, education is vital and empowering.
2. Seek out Online Support. When it comes to quitting tobacco, there is no better medicine than hearing from those who have walked the path before you and alongside of you. Online support connects you with hundreds of ex-smokers at all stages of quitting, and that support is available 24/7. If you’re struggling at 1am, you can log on and usually get immediate feedback because people from every time zone are involved.
3. Start a Quit Journal…and use it every day. Start your journal with a list of reasons for quitting and leave space to add more as time goes by. A few sentences describing how the day went, good or bad doesn’t require much time, but it will pay off days or weeks down the road when you’re having a bad day. A quick look back through your journal will help you see just how far you’ve come.
4. When cravings hit, shift gears mentally by changing your activity on the spot. If the urge to smoke grabs hold, get up and take a quick walk around the house, office or block. Drink a glass of water. Eat a healthy snack. Read through your quit journal. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing for 3 minutes. The idea is to jolt yourself out of the unhealthy thought pattern that is responsible for the craving, thereby disabling it. It only takes seconds to break a negative thought cycle and pull yourself out of a downward spiral.
5. Relax and let cravings wash over you. Rather than bracing for a fight when a strong smoking urge hits, relax and lean into it. Think of each one as a sign of healing because that is exactly what it is. Successfully overcome, you are teaching yourself how to manage life without a cigarette in your hand, one urge at a time.
6. Smoking cessation is a process, not an event. Most of us spent years developing associations between the activities in our lives and smoking, and we can’t expect them all to dissolve overnight. Give yourself the benefit of the time it takes to heal without any preconceived notions on how long that should be.
7. Remember your reasons and be proactive. Once we get a little distance from smoking, it’s normal to lose sight of just how bad smoking made us feel, or how much we hated it. From there, most of us start to think of smoking as an old love we let slip away. This is junkie thinking, and while it comes with the territory early on in cessation, it can derail a quit program quickly if left unchecked. Pay attention to your thoughts and when you find yourself wandering into dangerous territory, use the tips in item #4 to head it off.
8. Did I mention online support? I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this valuable quit tool, even if posting is not your style. Simply reading how others are managing will fortify your resolve more than you know.
Smoking cessation is hard work at times, especially early on, but dig your heels in and go the distance. It won’t be difficult forever, and the benefits you can look forward to far outweigh the work it takes to achieve.
The final element you should seriously consider including in your New Year’s resolution plan is a way to structure your time.
According to researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (CHEEK-sent-me-hi-ee, for those of you playing along at home), noon on Sunday is the “unhappiest hour in America”, and it’s not because you’re hungover or have to work the next day.9 According to his research, people are the unhappiest then because they are the least productive.
According to Winifred Gallagher, the author of RAPT, a book about managing your attention, the “antidote to leisure-time [boredom and unhappiness] is to pay as much attention to scheduling a productive evening or weekend as you do to your workday”.
Gallagher says that although people say that they enjoy being at home more than they do being at work, on the job they are “much likelier to focus on activities that demand their attention, challenge their abilities, have a clear objective, and elicit timely feedback”, all conditions that “favor an optimal experience”. Csikszentmihalyi’s research has also found that at work, people feel “more creative, active, concentrated, and involved than they do in domestic life”.
Scheduling your free time like you schedule your work time may seem backward on paper. After all, spontaneity is freedom–why plan out your free time as regimentally as you do work? Free time isn’t work!
While Winifred and Mihaly agree that free time is free time, they both agree that your become much more focused and motivated in your free time when you structure it somewhat. According to Mihaly, “if left to their own devices and genetic programming”, most people just do stuff like “worry about things or watch television”. According to him, it’s times like these that people become unfocused, unmotivated, and unhappy, and begin to “ruminate and feel like their time is being wasted”.
Being happy, creative, active, and focused are characteristics nearly everyone wants to have. The next time Sunday afternoon rolls around (or any other solid block of free time, really), a better-structured day, even if it’s loosely structured, may be just the ticket to help you stay focused, disciplined, and happy.
Set minimums/maximums for how much time you’ll spend in each of your hotspots
One of my favourite ways to structure my time works well with the ‘hotspot’ way of looking in your life that we talked about in Part One.
Once you’ve prioritized how important your hotspots are to you, act on how important they are to you by setting limits (minimums and maximums) on how much time you’ll devote to each activity. Here’s an example of some ‘timeboxes’, taken straight from the terrific book Getting Results the Agile Way:
|Body||Minimum of 3 hours|
|Career||Maximum of 50 hours|
|Relationships||Minimum of 8 hours|
|Fun||Minimum of 3 hours|
To make sure you effectively timebox each hotspot, actually schedule every minimum and maximums in your calendar (especially ones where you have a lower limit of how much time you want to spend).
Minimums force you to not neglect some hotspots when you invest your time in others, and maximums force you to use your time better, because it pushes you to use the time you have more wisely. When you schedule time caps (maximums) for getting stuff done, your mind will be motivated to work harder, because you have less time to get the same amount of work done.
Setting minimums and maximums is also a terrific way to set limits for how much or how little time you’ll spend on your New Year’s resolutions. For example:
- To achieve more of a work/life balance, set minimums and maximums for how much time you’ll spend with your loved ones and at work
- To keep a New Year’s resolution to help others more, set (and schedule) a weekly minimum for how much time you’ll spend looking for places to volunteer, and actually volunteering
- If you’ve made a resolution to enjoy life more, set a minimum for how much time you’ll spend relaxing (while loosely structuring your time, of course)
- To stick to a New Year’s resolution to exercise more, don’t only create habits that will get you to the gym, but also schedule (in your calendar) a minimum amount of time you’ll work out every week
To sum up, your plan to keep your New Year’s resolution should include:
- Clearly defined goals that are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based, small, and challenging
- A habit plan for how you are going to convert your New Year’s resolutions into habits by either adopting new habits, or by making changes to the habits you have already
- A plan for how you’re going to use peer pressure, avoid the “progress trap”, get in touch with your future self, and add additional structure to meet your goals
Creating a detailed plan for exactly how you’re going to keep your resolutions may seem tedious, but I can’t think of a single better way to achieve them.
When I interviewed Charles Duhigg for this guidebook, something he said stuck out at me–that “people tend to focus on the goal of a change without giving a lot of thought to the logistics of how they actually need to change”.
I couldn’t agree more, and if you want to stick to your resolutions, you absolutely have to make the jump from thinking about how great it would be to make a change to your life, to actually creating and following through with a plan to make that change.
Now, it’s time to act
So now that you’ve thought about the potential costs of your New Year’s resolutions, stepped back from your life to look a it from an elevated perspective, and formulated a plan to keep your resolutions, it’s time to actually act on the plan you created.
At the end of the day, the only way to achieve your New Year’s resolutions is to act on them. You should calculate their costs to see if resolutions are worth making, step back from your life to see if you’re picking the right ones, and come up with a solid plan to follow through with them, but if you don’t eventually act on your plan, you’ll never achieve it. That is what the next part is about. Part Three is broken down into five chapters.
- David Allen on New Year’s Resolutions
- Clear your mind
- Cut out distractions
- Get things done
- Go easy on yourself
Chapter one is my interview with David Allen. One of the central ideas in David Allen’s Getting Things Done system is how important it is to clear your mind so you can focus on your task at hand. David described how he accomplishes this with his GTD system in my interview with him, and he also touched on topics like his ritual of making New Year’s recollections instead of resolutions, and why you should set shorter-term goals.
Chapter two will provide you with a few of my favorite habits for clearing your mind, including starting a “waiting for” list, having a “maintenance day”, “clearing to neutral”, and starting a ritual to capture everything that’s on your mind.
I also think that in order to get things done, it’s just as important to clear out any distractions that you might have. Chapter three will provide you with some practical tips for taming your distractions so you can focus on your resolutions.
Then, it’s time to actually get stuff done. In the fourth chapter I’ll guide you through several solid, proven tools and techniques that will help you accomplish your resolutions in the new year.
Finally, we’ll end by talking about how important it is to respect yourself while you work to keep your resolutions. That might sound a little hippie-dippy, but it’s not. A lot of people like to beat themselves up when they make resolutions, and this chapter will talk about some ways to make sure you’re not too hard on yourself in the process.
Alright, let’s jump in!