The new year is a natural time to make changes and create new habits.
We love the idea of making a fresh start in January, but most of us end up frustrated and disappointed just a few weeks into the new year. We all know from experience that putting ourselves on a radical budget or diet starting January 1st rarely works. So, how do we make lasting changes? Why do the vast majority of resolutions fail? Why do we revert back to our old behaviors so quickly?
Change is hard
Self-improvement is a good thing, but we need to set ourselves up for success. It doesn’t matter if you call it a new year’s resolution, an intention, a goal, or even a theme to reflect the changes you want to make — there’s nothing magical about January that makes change easier.
Repeatedly failing to achieve self-improvement goals has turned many people off from making new year’s resolutions (hence the trend toward intentions or theme words). In other words, new year’s resolutions are laden with our past failures. So, we start out discouraged and doubtful about our ability to follow through.
You can’t rely on willpower
Many of our self-improvement plans are based on willpower and self-discipline. The problem is that we have a limited supply of willpower. If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know that your willpower and resolve are highest at the beginning of the day. It’s easy to pass up the donuts at your 9 am meeting, not too difficult to make a healthy choice for lunch, but increasingly tough to pass up the cookies your kids are enjoying after dinner. We all have a limited amount of willpower, so it becomes harder and harder to resist temptation after exerting self-control all day (or all week).
When we try to make radical changes, like giving up sugar or never eating out, we are using more willpower than if we make small or moderate changes. So, we deplete our willpower more quickly. We also end up discouraged more quickly. So we give up more quickly.
An alternative that works for many people is to make small, incremental changes.
Making small changes is motivating
Often, we’re so eager to change that we want to do it all at once. Maybe you decide you’ll get healthy – you’ll give up your soda habit, go to the gym five times a week, eat only salads for lunch, and meditate daily. And even though these are pretty specific goals, it’s a lot to ask of yourself all at once. As I said, when our willpower and planning fail us, we become discouraged and more likely to quit. Or if we do succeed in making massive changes quickly, they’re hard to sustain, and we drift back to our old patterns – again, leaving us with a sense of failure, and perhaps shame.
In contrast, making smaller changes increases our chances of success, which keeps us motivated for the long haul. In her book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin writes, “Keeping changes modest can make it easier to stick to a new habit and to avoid the burnout that can hit when we try to make big changes all at once” (Broadway Books, 2015, p. 39).
Large problems or goals feel more manageable when we break them down into small pieces. If you read my blog regularly, you’ve probably noticed that I frequently encourage you to think of one small change that you can make today and then build on that. It’s important to feel successful early in the change process as this encourages you to keep going.
Set goals so small that you can’t possibly fail
According to Caroline L. Arnold, the author of Small Move, Big Change (Penguin Books, 2014), the first rule of setting micro-resolutions is they must be easy. They have to be so specific and doable that you’re certain you can achieve them. The easier the better.
For example, if your goal is to keep your house neat, choose one small change you can make, say sorting your mail immediately rather than letting it collect on the kitchen counter. It’s tempting to want to set your sights higher fearing that a small change like recycling the junk mail won’t result in any significant change in neatness. Well, perhaps at first it won’t. But making small changes creates a success mindset that will help you set and achieve more and more small goals.
Small changes make a big difference
In addition to giving us a sense of success, small changes can really add up! Once sorting your mail becomes a habit, you can easily add hanging up your coat and putting away your shoes to your routine. Then you might add putting your dishes in the dishwasher straight away rather than leaving them in the sink. With practice, these new behaviors become automatic and you’ll be doing them with little thought or effort.
Aim for progress, not perfection
Focusing on small changes is also a great way to get away from all-or-nothing thinking – labeling things as a success or a failure. In my book The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism, I discuss how our rigid, perfectionist thinking makes it hard for us to see that many of our endeavors are what I call “partial successes.”
For example, if your goal is to have a tidy home and all you accomplish is getting the mail off the kitchen counter, you might look at the jackets and shoes strewn about, dirty dishes in the sink, and piles of clutter, and conclude that you failed. Alternatively, you could see tackling the mail as a step in the right direction, something worth doing even if other areas of your house remain messy. A goal, such as having a tidy house, doesn’t have to be measured as a complete success or a complete failure; there’s lots of space in between for “partial successes” because ultimately change is about progress not perfection.
Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently by Caroline L. Arnold
Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin
The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance by Sharon Martin