Now that you’ve polished off the last of the egg nog, stowed away your presents, and survived several days of uninterrupted “family time,” it’s time to get down to business — with your 2018 resolutions.
Whether you’re trying to grow your career, get into tip-top shape, eat healthier, be a better friend or partner or save money, how about resolving to use a new approach to actually making lasting changes in your life? To get started, first find out why most goals fail: Then you can improve your chances at success.
In fact, there is one trick that has been shown to really help, from behavioral expert BJ Fogg, a research scholar at Stanford University, and his sister, Linda Fogg-Phillips, who runs the Tiny Habits academy training people using Fogg’s system. Here’s what you need to know.
Why it’s so hard to stick to resolutions
There isn’t just one way to make a big life change, Fogg-Philips said in a phone interview with Mic. One is to have an epiphany, like, “I was put on this Earth to be a teacher.” Another is to change your environment, like deciding to stop hanging around with friends who encourage you to overspend.
And yet another is changing your behavior, which is arguably the easiest and most reliable of the three methods — since epiphanies are rare and you can’t always change your environment, especially if you, say, have roommates.
Still, when we try to change our behavior, people often go about it the wrong way. “They rely too much on willpower and motivation,” Fogg-Phillips said. And as anyone who has tried to resist their favorite foods knows, eventually your willpower and motivation break down.
“Relying primarily on motivation to change your behavior long-term is a losing strategy,” Fogg said in a TEDx talk. “And similarly for willpower.” That’s because no matter how motivated you are on day one, sooner or later you’re going to revert back to your old ways.
Another problem is picking goals that are too ambitious: Let’s say you want to run a marathon. That’s great! But if you can’t even jog a mile without hyperventilating and getting leg cramps, there’s a good chance you’ll give up in frustration long before you stagger across the finish line.
Lastly, “people aren’t specific enough,” Fogg-Phillips said. Sure, it seems pretty specific to say you will start calling your Mom every Sunday, getting to work 15 minutes early every day or applying for three new jobs a week, for example. But to be successful in reality, you need to also specify when during the day you will do those things and how you will find time for them in the first place.
Here’s the simple trick for hacking your lazy brain — and keeping your resolutions
There are three key steps to forming meaningful habits, according to the Tiny Habits method:
1. Pick one small thing you want to change
When Fogg wanted to lose weight, he decided to start exercising more. And to help him achieve that goal, he committed to doing two pushups.
That might sound slightly absurd (after all, how much healthier can just two pushups make you?) but Fogg found that starting with one “tiny habit” is so easy, it is actually achievable — a key ingredient for success. You might choose a similarly small change, whether it’s walking around the block, saying hi to your mom, eating a banana, or saving $10.
2. Create a trigger
The trick to actually completing your new goal, however, is to do it right after something you already do — so you don’t forget.
For Fogg, that meant doing the two pushups right after he peed. Since he does that several times a day, he wound up doing much more than two pushups each day. For you, it might be walking around the block after you feed your cat; texting hi to your mom when you check your mail; eating a banana when you have your morning coffee; or saving $10 whenever you receive your paycheck.
Here’s a simple way to remember this priciple:
“After I ____, I will ___.”
Now try filling in the blanks with something you want to achieve. For example:
“After I wash my face in the morning, I will put sunscreen on it.”
“After I get home, I will set out my workout clothes.”
“After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.”
As Fogg explained, “You don’t have to put up Post-it notes. You don’t have to set up alarms.” And therein lies his system’s beauty: By committing to doing two pushups every time he used the bathroom, over time he wound up doing dozens each day. Two pushups was so easy, in fact, he eventually got up to eight several times each day. And then he decided to do a couple bonus pushups to get himself up to as many as a dozen each time.
You can use this same approach to grow your goals, too. And, as you can tell from the “workout clothes” example above, part of the beauty of this method is that the tiny habit you create can sometimes simply be a nudge toward the real behavior you’re trying to cultivate (like going to the gym). So if eating that banana is too big a step for you? Commit to just setting it out on the counter.
One issue to keep in mind is you may need to allot more time at the end of each habit if you want to make it more impactful. For example, if you commit to meeting with the people who report to you once a week, but only allot five minutes for it, it won’t work if your schedule is so jam-packed that you run out of time to meet with them at all.
3. Attach a positive emotion to completing your habit
A new habit, however small, can quickly feel like a chore if you don’t feel good about it. That’s why it’s important to celebrate, if only a little. “Emotions create habits,” Fogg-Phillips said. Say your goal is to make your bed right after you wake up each morning. After you do it, take a moment to appreciate how nice your bedroom looks when it’s that much tidier. Maybe even send a photo to your parents or friends!
And the next time you finish a project on deadline, send that thank-you email or make a healthy smoothie for breakfast, remember to give yourself a pat on the back (whether literally or metaphorically): You’re awesome and you deserve it.
But does this trick really work?
While the Tiny Habits method sounds great in theory, you may wonder if it really works. Though Fogg-Phillips acknowledged there are no academic studies verifying its effectiveness, there are people who swear by it.
Reshanda Yates is one of them. The co-owner of a window-washing business in New Orleans said the program helped her lose 50 pounds over the past few years by changing her eating habits, exercising regularly and learning how to avoid binge eating.
“I wanted to start cooking on a regular basis,” Yates said in a phone interview. “My smallest possible step was to put the knife on the cutting board when I got home.” For exercise, she started by doing two squats right after she flushed the toilet. Now she cooks all the time and does up to 45 squats every day.
Overcoming binge eating was trickier, because the one thing the Tiny Habits program doesn’t help with is stopping bad habits. A good workaround for that is creating new habits to replace the bad ones. Yates said she used mindfulness to help focus on how she felt when she went overboard with fast food or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. “I started taking these 30-second moments to check in with myself. That allowed me to eliminate my binge eating,” she said.
Perhaps the most important factor in sticking to the habits you’re trying to establish is what you do after you finish one. “The celebration really matters,” Yates said. She likes to smile, do a fist pump or dance a little jig.
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