Why Do New Year Resolutions Never Work?

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It’s January, the time of year when we aspire to be or accomplish something new. You don’t have to wait for January to decide to improve yourself, but it’s as good a time as any, and definitely the most popular time. We’re two weeks in now, the gyms are packed, we’re paying closer attention to our budgets, our pantries are full of healthier foods, you know how it goes. These are all good things, but unfortunately, studies show that about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February. Maybe your resolution is already floundering.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says people don’t rise to the level of their goals, they fall to the level of their systems. I think he’s exactly right. We’re good at setting goals and making resolutions, but we’re bad at making lasting changes. And it’s not because we don’t want it enough or because we make disingenuous resolutions, it’s because humans operate by default and we fail to address our default habits. Goals don’t change behavior regardless of how SMART they are or whether or not they qualify as BHAG. We need new systems, new defaults, and new habits, maybe not another resolution.

So how do we change our systems? James Clear talks about becoming 1% better each day by doing something small. It could be one pushup per day if you want to build a workout habit. It could be one call per day if you want to build a networking habit. You mold your identity by consistently doing the things the type of person you aspire to be does. Each time you do something, no matter how small, your new identity is reinforced. If I’m an athletic person, I workout. Weight loss and muscle gains simply follow. If I’m a successful salesperson, I network. Income is simply a result. My default habits would never change by simply thinking about my weight loss goal or even by putting down my income goals on paper (I, like most of us, have tried). Change requires action, no matter how small. A helpful quote I’ve come across (attributed to several different authors including Millar Fuller and Jerry Sternin) summarizes this idea nicely: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Alan Deutschman, in his book Change or Die, says, “It’s obvious that what we believe and what we feel influences how we act. That’s common sense. But the equation works in the other direction as well: How we act influences what we believe and what we feel. That’s one of the most counterintuitive yet powerful principles of modern psychology (p78).” He adds, “You have to do things a new way before you can think in a new way (p79).”

It’s interesting to think about the purpose of all of this. We set goals at the beginning of each year because we want to accomplish things, for sure. But I think the more significant reason we spend all of this time on goals is that we aspire to be better persons. The most basic thing we’re after is a change in our identity. I won’t stray into the mire of philosophical implications here, but I think that’s a clarifying thought. The accomplishment we’re after is a change in identity, not another New Year’s resolution. Our identity changes when our default behaviors and habits change. Act different in order to think different. Start small, start simple, do something laughably easy, and then don’t ever stop.

Don’t worry about long-term plans

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Long term plans are tough, mostly because we don’t know the future. If you’ve got a 20-year long term goal that’s great, but it’s probably not going to happen, at least not the way you planned; who knows what will happen in the next 20 years? It’s not bad to set long goals if only to set you in a direction, but don’t marry those goals, don’t die on their hills, don’t forsake all other paths or options. People achieve success more often by focusing on what’s right in front of them. It’s called short term planning. When an opportunity arises you make a decision, you work hard at the work in front of you, you make plans for things that are actionable and semi-immediate. Success tends to favor those who, instead of working backward from a goal in the future, make a decision based on the currently available options which will give them the best range of options in the future. They actually keep their options open. It’s a different perspective, instead of an early determination to go all out in one direction or after one thing, you can take things as they come. You’ll obviously still work hard and make good decisions when options present themselves, but you don’t have to sell out for a long term goal. Don’t worry about the next 20 years, worry about the week, the day, the hour in front of you, and make the most of it.

Investing is like working out

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Everyone knows they should be exercising. Everyone would love to tighten up the softer spots, see some muscle definition, feel strong and energetic, and be more confident in the way they look. Unfortunately few do it.
The formula to accomplish all of these great benefits is not complicated. Everyone knows about a gym nearby they could join or maybe already have joined, everyone knows how to walk or run on a treadmill, everyone understands basic dumbbell movements, everyone has broken a sweat at some point in their lives. We know what exercise is, it’s a pretty simple concept.
So why are so many of us overweight and dissatisfied with our physical selves? Working out is simple, but it’s also hard. It takes work, it takes some pretty intense discipline, and it takes a severe level of consistency.
Investing is similar (although, maybe a little more complicated). Most of us understand the concepts of buy and hold, diversify, and making regular contributions, but it’s tough to do it right and do it consistently. When the market recessed in 2008, net redemptions (the amount of money being pulled out of the market) were astoundingly high. Buy and hold philosophies went out the window when things got scary. When trade wars make the international investing landscape seem less certain, people begin wondering if they should be invested outside the U.S. at all. When people want to buy a house their retirement accounts seem like a good place to pull money for a downpayment. None of these things are evil, but they’re often hampering financial progress, and sometimes lead to devastating effects. It’s simple, but we still mess it up.
What’s the solution to these things that are simple but hard, these things that we know we should be doing but have a difficult time actually doing? The solution is a coach.
We get coaching from all over the place, books we read, people we trust, professionals, etc. In fitness, a coach is someone who gets you to the gym and shows you what you need to do. In investing, a coach helps you understand investing, avoid pitfalls and panics, and achieve outcomes you’re pursuing.
So work with an investing coach, and hit the gym.

Change

 

chris-lawton-5IHz5WhosQE-unsplashGoals are important. But everyone has goals, including people who never achieve them. The great thing about goals is that they can be whatever you want them to be, you can dream big, swing for the fences, aim for the stars, or any other colloquialism you can think of. The downside of goals is that, for some reason, most people don’t achieve them, that they more often end up dreams.
What would cause a person not to achieve their goals? The problem is rooted in action. For most of us, our actions aren’t in line with our goals. Our actions, bad habits, addiction to comfort, fear of people, put us on a trajectory that is not easily swayed, and certainly not by some fanciful ideas.
So how do we adjust our actions? Unfortunately, in order to achieve goals, our actions usually have to change in a less comfortable direction. Discomfort is really hard to get comfortable with. It’s one thing to do something uncomfortable once, it’s very difficult to make it a long term habit. Change is super hard, and there are a lot of things to go into it, but I think there’s one especially important component: identity. Deep down in the recesses of your brain are you a fat person or a skinny person? Are you a hard-working person or a ‘laid back’ person? A tough person or a weak person? A happy person or a ‘realistic’ person? Your actions can actually help you answer these questions, because what you’re doing (eating too much, working too little, etc.) is directly tied to how you see yourself, to your identity. Here’s my suggested hack: look at yourself differently. It’s far from easy, but it’s a start.

Stop Aspiring

Aspirational material is everywhere. We see headlines like ‘7 steps to shredded abs’ or ‘how I made this much $$$ working from home’ or any other exciting material promising to help you be or have something different. Aspirational material is addictive, probably because we pretty much all aspire to things. Who doesn’t want more money or a better body or a more fulfilling job? Seems pretty natural that we’d be interested in engaging with the manuals.

Simon Sinek is his Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action makes the point that all of this aspirational jargon is a type of manipulation. Here’s a helpful quote:

Though positive in nature, aspirational messages are most effective with those who lack discipline or have a nagging fear or insecurity that they don’t have the ability to achieve their dreams on their own.

By ‘effective,’ Sinek means for the company or person who creates the content, it’s not effective for the individual. Companies use aspirational messaging to sell us things, and it works. You buy a gym membership because you aspire to be healthier, and if it’s a nice gym for a great deal it’s easy to justify. An entire gym membership business model is built on these aspirations. They sell innumerable memberships, far more than the gym could actually accommodate, because they know people won’t show up. They know people aspire to be healthier making a membership an easy sell, but they also know people only aspire, they don’t want to put in the work to execute on a goal.

When we feel stuck in some part of our lives, when there’s something we would love to change about ourselves or our circumstances, we often think the problem is a lack of knowledge or motivation. If it’s knowledge, we think that either we need more knowledge or someone else needs more knowledge (probably both) in order to make progress or affect change. If it’s motivation, we think we need some sort of special inspiration in order to get us moving. Neither of those beliefs is helpful. How many aspirational blog posts do you think you’ll need to read before you’re sufficiently knowledgable and motivated to make those pounds fall off or start that passion project? If you’re anything like me, you’ve definitely put your time in with this aspirational stuff, but those hours probably haven’t paid really well. It’s fun, but it never does what we hope it will. Aspirational material is not all bad, you can find some really helpful tips and tricks buried in there, and maybe even a little motivation now and again, but it’s important to understand what that stuff can and cannot do for you. Aspirations and aspirational material can’t change you.

So here’s a little trick I picked up: stop aspiring. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set goals and make plans, in fact, goals and plans are the opposite of aspiration. An aspiration is foggy, vague, mostly unhelpful. It’s more like a wish than anything else. And it’s really easy to spend hours and hours thinking about our wishes. A goal is objective, something you can act on, something you can make a plan to achieve. If you want to do or be something different an aspiration won’t take you very far, but a plan of action could.