It’s New Year’s resolution time again, a beautiful annual ritual that almost never seems to bear fruit. Having been a more than willing participant for a couple of decades now, and it seems like I’m stuck in the same rut, doing the same things and getting the same (non) results. Sadly, this failure doesn’t even pinch much anymore. Any of it sound familiar?
And that’s what bothered me most for a few years – that the failure to achieve my resolutions don’t bother me anymore. That usually led to stricter and more lofty resolutions and more spectacular failures. And then I chanced upon something in James Clear’s celebrated book Atomic Habits. A couple of nuggets actually.
Firstly, my resolutions were goals that needed to become habits but never did. Why did they not do so? Goals are finite (and sometimes deliberately unreachable) The result is to create fanciful routines to hit this goal which never had a chance to succeed; so I gave up even before I started most times. And even when they did, the stress of the journey and the accomplishment immediately led me to slack off. Ergo, back to square one.
The second nugget was even more powerful. In his book, Clear says that many people begin the process of habit change by focusing on What they want to accomplish. The alternative is to focus on Who we wish to become. And as a coach that focuses on the WHO of my coachee and not just on the WHAT, this really hit home.
To continue with what the book says… don’t try and become a thin person (lose xx kilos etc.) but become a healthy person. When you’re sitting to eat, don’t focus on what that piece of food will do to your weight-loss, because you will lose that battle. If not now, then eventually for sure. Instead, I realized that if I train myself to think like ‘What would a healthy (or fit) person choose in this situation?’ I’m more likely to find more sustainable answers. Even if they take more time and the change is incremental – it is more sustainable and capable of habit formation.
Interestingly, the most hard-hitting example he gives relates to quitting smoking – arguably one of the most popular New Year resolutions. Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered one, the first person says, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit”. A reasonable response but in his mind, this person still believes that he’s a smoker. This is like trying to change behaviour while still keeping the same beliefs.
The second person declines by saying, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker’. A small difference but a signal of a shift in identity. I’m not a smoker anymore, it is not part of my life today. In the first, there is still a ‘goal’ – WHAT that person is trying to do. In the second, it is WHO the person thinks he is.
My resolutions have been appropriately modified. Now to see if the change in identity produces the desired change in behaviour. And that I can write a different post next January. I live in hope.
What’s your New Year Resolution story?