According to the Wikipedia article on this subject, the failure rate of New Year’s resolutions is 88%. In this article I’ll give you solid reasons why most New Year’s Resolutions don’t work, and how to make adding, changing, or removing any habit easier.
Limited executive function
Everyone from judges to dieters to engaged couples make worse decisions as the day goes on. (I have been feeling the “engaged couples” one lately.) As the article states, this is because we use glucose when making decisions and do not replenish it. After a certain amount of glucose loss, the brain stops trying to think of tradeoffs, and instead does whatever is easy. For the purposes of this blog post, consider glucose to be equivalent to willpower or executive function. I use executive function and willpower somewhat interchangeably.
I think that managing habits with willpower is a very effective way to improve personal and organizational performance.
Capacity for change in behavior is like a muscle, and it can be exercised by applying willpower. Using willpower effectively is a skill. The capacity for change can be expanded by stressing the system and letting it recover. Too much stress and not enough recovery leads to poor results. See The Power of Full Engagement for more along these lines. Especially insightful is the idea of managing energy, not time. More on this in a bit.
Willpower as it relates to habits
The way most people try to change is to list about twenty things that they want to change and make them ambiguous. They try really hard for a couple of weeks, and then say that this whole “change thing” isn’t really what they are into. Maybe they don’t have enough willpower, they think…
I think willpower in and of itself is mostly overrated. Willpower is good for getting you to start something, but not usually very useful for following through. I think of it like adrenaline. It’s good for fight or flight and pulling trapped babies out from under cars, but you cannot sustain that level of effort for a very long time. Willpower depletes quickly. To try to will yourself to write every day is difficult. To instead set up a habit based on a routine makes it far simpler. So I use the willpower to think about and create the routine that I want and begin forming the habit, and when the habit is formed it does the rest.
Consider brushing your teeth. Most people in the modern world brush their teeth at least once a day without needing to think much about it. They normally have a routine of “after I eat breakfast, I brush my teeth”, or “after I get dressed, I brush my teeth”, or “before I go to bed, I brush my teeth.” This habit has been practiced regularly for a long time, and they do it every day. The associations are very strong. It takes basically no executive function to be able to do this. Brushing my teeth is the gold standard of habits, as far as I can tell. I can be half drunk and tired and still want to brush my teeth.
Routine lowers the need to use willpower. You don’t want to have to will yourself to brush your teeth. If you have to think about it much, you’ve already lost. Eventually you will lose interest or forget or just not want to do it.
Applying willpower for useful things
Taking this realization to more concrete or useful areas…
If you want to have one-on-ones with the people you manage, the best way is not to create a new meeting every month when you think of it. A better way is to set up an automatically recurring meeting once and then move it or cancel it only when something comes up. That way you have the intention once and don’t have to exert executive function again until something changes. You can easily make plans without needing to worry that you are not making enough time for your employees. The default is to have the meeting.
If I had to choose between trying to will a side project into existence or setting up a habit to work on it on Tuesday and Thursday nights, I would far prefer the latter. It is useful to set up a schedule that you can use later. Perhaps you finish project 1 and want to start project 2. Then you can use your existing schedule to begin working on another project without much effort. In my case, I generally do some sort of open source or side project work on Monday nights if there are no meetups. I started this by thinking, “I have several projects that I would like to see move forward, and the best way to do this is to have a regularly scheduled meeting with other people present so I cannot skip it. Hence, why not start this on a night that is generally free?” A few of us ended up turning this habit into Indy Startup Lab, and having group commitments helps to stay consistent.
Systematizing a business is similar to the process of creating personal habits. You come up with the main decision points over time and create rules that you generally want to follow. Proponents of lean thinking would say that it is not the people, it is the process. Focus on creating a productive and sustainable process and desirable results will come.
Ramit Sethi has some thoughts related to this dealing with strategies for saving more money. He basically says most “financial experts” say that you should try to save money by cutting back on daily lattes or other acts of willing yourself to spend less. Ramit, however, says that this unnecessarily causes you to make more decisions, and changes like this are hard to sustain. Instead, he recommends taking the willpower that you do have and devoting it to setting up systems like automated savings. Have the money taken out of your main account and put somewhere more difficult to reach, and you will be much less likely to spend it. You have the effect of saving more money than you normally would, and it happens every month whether you will it to be or not.
The meta-habit here is setting up your habits so that they give you more energy, thereby creating a virtuous cycle that gives you more willpower in the future. If you have some extra energy to spare, you could work a little harder at the task you are working on or screw around for awhile until it passes–OR you could invest that energy into systems, decisions, or habits that will be beneficial over the long run.
Generally decision-making is going to be best at the beginning of the day. This suggests a few routes to increasing effectiveness. One is making as few non-critical decisions early on in the day. Having a habit of having your morning clothes all laid out is one popular technique. Knowing a healthy breakfast you can eat without having to think too much should preserve even more executive function. Having your day generally laid out (by scheduling it the night before) is a way to know where you have to be and when without needing to exert much thought in the morning. This leaves morning hours to be devoted to a block of writing, programming, or other creation.
Getting better at making decisions quickly seems to be a useful way to preserve executive function. No sense in spending a lot of mental energy over an low-impact decision. Just make a decision and move on, and if you need to revisit it later, you can.
New ideas and connections seem to strike when someone is in the shower, brushing their teeth, shaving, or some other mundane task. Perhaps going on ‘autopilot’ is a way for the brain to relax or to make new connections. What would it mean for someone’s creativity if this were true and they could cultivate more automatic habits?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes into play here, as it is probably more difficult to reach the highest levels of performance with a weak foundation. Nail the basics to avoid spending energy on them, which leaves that energy for higher level pursuits.
Set clear actions and habits rather than muddy goals
To tie this back to the title of the post and talk about New Year’s Resolutions, I think that change should be small and continuous over time. I think resolutions that start on the same day every year are dumb. Why wait six months? Why wait until tomorrow?
Someone who is out of shape is not going to be able to beat themselves back into shape in a couple of weeks. There is almost certainly an issue with current systems and how they function. At this point saying something like, “I want to lose weight” is probably not going to be very helpful.
Does the person regularly work out? If not, why not? Insufficient time? Insufficient energy? Inconvenient? Other priorities? What could be change to change these conditions? Should dinner be shifted earlier or later to have time to work out? Would doing something in the morning help out more? Is there just too much on the person’s plate at the moment?
More helpful than a muddy goal of “I want to lose weight” would be “I want to lose X pounds by a certain date”. But even better than that would be laying out a specific habit modification plan.
Something like “Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: Before I leave for work, I will lay out my exercise clothes. When I get home from work, I will put on my exercise clothes. I will drive to the gym and go in.”
No need to actually work out, but if you’re in the gym, you are more likely to get at least some form of workout in and you can go home super-happy. But even if you go all that way, if you go in and turn around, it’s still a win, because you are training yourself to lay those clothes out, to put them on, and to drive to the gym. You keep the habit alive.
Gardening your habits
Undesirable behaviors come from all directions. Some of them might be known undesirables, others were coping strategies at one time, others were once useful and are no longer as useful (zombie habits.) Whatever the means of acquisition, there are some strategies out there to bust them up. The book Self-Directed Behavior comes in handy here.
To begin to break a habit, you should identify the antecedents, or what triggers the activity, and try to avoid putting yourself in those situations. The antecedent to yelling at your landlord is when you are hungry. As a result, you try to stay well-fed when you know you will have to deal with your landlord.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does human nature. It’s important to have something to replace your old activity with. We don’t deal well with voids. It’s tough to just eliminate a behavior without having something else to replace it with. Someone trying to quit smoking might chew gum or play the harmonica instead.
You might have to think ahead to set yourself up to succeed. Cultivate the habits that you want to have and weed things you do to waste time. If you want to read more books, have one at hand. When you would normally go to a time-wasting website (or find yourself teleported there), read the book for a few minutes instead.
Every time you choose to do something that has low-value, you reinforcing your tendency to do that behavior.
Today’s actions form tomorrow’s habits. Sometimes before I take an action, I consider, “if I had to do this action every day for the rest of my life, would I still choose to do it?” Every time I break the chain of something that I want to stop doing, I increase the likelihood that I will do so again in the future. Every time I keep doing something that I want to stop doing, I reinforce that behavior. Like Pavlov’s dogs, I too am a creature of habit.
Regularly scheduled work meetings are a form of habit. Maybe this meeting was once useful, but has since outlived its usefulness. Maybe it was habit to invite person X, but they no longer have much need to be there. What if all meetings at an organization were suddenly canceled and you had to start from scratch, once per year?
Change your environment to notice more habits. If it’s television (are you really still watching television?), put it in the closet and cancel your cable. If it’s a social network, remove the bookmark so that you have to type into the address bar to access it. Change around the icons on your desktop and bookmarks on your browser frequently. You will become more aware of the fact that you are doing something merely out of habit. Heck, change your key bindings once you know them too well. I’ll bet when you remap the save key of your editor or word processor you’ll notice habits that you didn’t think you had. Just trying to change an existing habit creates an awareness.
What other people are doing
Giles Bowkett has a bunch of posts on his own habit management system, based on the Seinfeld method of keeping the streak alive. I find this to be an effective way to see how you are doing at sustaining habits.
One of my favorite quotes of the series is in the second article:
Just like with fast-running tests that pass or fail quickly, showing you in real time whether or not your code is any good, the win is immediate response. Since I noticed quickly, it’s easy for me to throw away the delay-inducing idea and switch to something new.
I like the idea of having a baseline for habits and then you can see when changes in your life impact them. What caused week 1 to be so-so and week 2 to be fantastic? What changed?
If you’re into reading more about habits, check out the work of Buster Benson. He thinks about this kind of stuff a lot. Pretty much all of his posts are good, but be sure to check out Everything I (currently) know about starting and keeping habits in one long manifesto. There are some really actionable items, especially planning for bad days and how to get back into action.
Creating new habits
Behavior expert BJ Fogg recently had a free distributed exercise called 3 Tiny Habits. I participated in this, and it was very helpful for seeing how to easily add habits that I wanted to add.
During the weekend, you come up with three habits that you write down and plan to follow Monday through Friday. BJ sends you texts throughout the week asking you how you did and course-correcting if necessary. There a few key components to the program.
One is that you anchor the behavior to something that you currently do. For example, “after I X, I will Y”. Doing something after an existing habit is one way to make new behavior adoption much quicker. This is because you already do the existing habit, so it’s much more likely that you will have a trigger for it (see Self-Directed Behavior again.)
Next, and this is possibly the most important lesson I learned, you make each habit the smallest possible habit you can make. One of my habits was initially “After I wake up, I will write down any dreams that I have in my dream notebook, and in the event that I don’t remember any, write NDR (no dreams recalled.)” BJ pointed out that it could even be simpler: “After I wake up, I will pick up my dream notebook.” This seemed ridiculous at first blush. What was the point of just picking up the notebook? However, this is closer to the minimal action that reinforces the habit and ensures that I don’t break the chain. If I am feeling low on energy, I can do this and still feel excited that I accomplished something. BJ comes up with other examples like, “after I brush my teeth, I will floss at least one tooth.” Seems strange, but it is a lot easier to approach mentally.
Doing the 3 Tiny Habits program was a win. It took negligible time on my part and only a little preparation. Hooking a behavior to something you already do fairly regularly and easily is a great way to hack habits. I think as a result of seeing my progress, I am more likely to pursue habit modification in the future. I still floss essentially daily after doing this. I liked the emphasis on congratulating yourself for the small wins, and not being too hard on yourself in the event that you slip. Picking the smallest possible success criteria for a task is very useful.
Instead of saying that I will write every day for fifteen minutes (an actual aim I once used), I’d be more likely to now say, “after breakfast, I will open up my blog drafts document and read it for thirty seconds”. Generally changing my current default to opening up the document is the hardest part, and once I start looking at one of the drafts I remember something I was thinking about in the car yesterday or see a paragraph that could use some love, and I’m off to the races. Once the small habit is fully ingrained, you can start making it slightly bigger or piggy-backing off of it. This is nice because habits beget more habits.
Well that was a really long post. Thanks for sticking with it! What are the best resources on habit formation and gardening that you’ve found? What are your techniques for preserving executive function? Hope your new year is off to a good start. :)