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.

Parenting by explanation

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I ran into a super interesting study the other day in an almost as interesting book called Originals by Adam Grant. That’s not a subtle dig, the book is really good, but the study is incredibly interesting. It was published in 1992 as The Altruistic Personality by Samuel and Pearl Oliner.

The Oliners wanted to find out what drove non-Jews to risk their lives to aid and hide Jews during the Nazi rein in Europe. What was the difference between those who stuck out their necks and those who sat passively by? These people shared similar careers, lived in the same neighborhoods, attended the same schools, etc. They shared much in common, but one of the most significant differences the Oliners found involved how they were raised. The rescuers often used the word ‘explained’ to characterize their parent’s method of parenting. When they were disciplined or reprimanded, their parents tended to explain why what they did was wrong and how their actions affected other people. The explanations were good for a few things: 1) The explanations fostered values. An explanation can tie behavior to identity, a good person can’t steal toys and make other kids feel bad. Instead of a focus on rote compliance, the focus is on forming identities. 2) Explanations treat children as rational people with the ability to make choices and changes. Instead of demanding obedience, explanations help children see their need and ability to take responsibility for their own actions.

For those who risked their lives to save others during the Nazzi occupation, explanations from their parents had shifted their risk calculation from one of cost versus benefits to one of weighing values. If the cost versus benefit equation was utmost, there’s no question it would have made more sense to stay on the sidelines during the Nazi occupation. The risk was literally death. But if the calculation was one of personal values and identity, it becomes nearly impossible to sit idly by while fellow humans suffer injustice.

So next time your child makes a mistake or acts out or generally struggles with disobedience, talk to them when you discipline them. Help them see how their actions affect other people. Use language that addresses their identity (who they want to be) instead of purely focusing on the act (what they did). Turns out parenting is pretty important, and an explanation from a parent can go a long way.

This is the problem with debt consolidation

 

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It’s not a math problem. The numbers on debt consolidation actually sometimes make sense. Credit cards (for instance) offer high interest rates because they’re unsecured, personal lines of credit. The most popular consolidation loans are home equity loans which offer much lower interest rates because they’re secured against your home. If you stop paying a credit card, the debt goes to collections and the credit card company receives pennies on the dollars that you owe them, their risk is high and you pay for it. If you stop paying a home equity loan, the bank has a stake in your house and they can sell it to get their money back (foreclosure), their risk is much lower and you pay less for it. So that all makes sense, isn’t it an obviously beneficial move to slide the debt from unsecured credit cards with high interest rates into a secured home equity line with a low interest rate?

Like I said, the math may sometimes make sense on paper (may, although there are some serious issues with home equity loans which offset the juicy interest rates), but the math was never the issue. We need to consider the root of the problem. If the root of the problem is that you’ve got high interest rates on credit card debt then a consolidation loan solves the problem; done, easy. Unfortunately, that’s not the root problem. The root of the problem is that you’ve got a broken relationship with money and things. You buy things because you want them and you worry about where the money will come from later. You use credit cards because, points (obviously), and they make you feel like lots of little purchases are no big deal. Your financial life lacks intention, there’s a disconnect between your purpose/values, and your money/spending. A consolidation loan is appealing for the momentary relief it could provide, your monthly debt payments might be cut in half, but it’s only a bandaid. Without a more fundamental change to your relationship with money and your spending habits, the consolidation loan will actually only end up causing more debt and more pain in the future.

Home equity loans (again, the most common type of consolidation loan) are usually interest-only loans, which means if you make the minimum (interest-only) payment each month, the debt could continue on into eternity. The lower interest rate is not helpful if the debt isn’t going down. People often end up paying far more interest on a low-rate equity loan than they would have by aggressively paying off a credit card.

A debt consolidation loan will wipe out your credit card balances leaving lots more room to spend. Without a change in the deeper issue (your relationship to money), you’ll just end up with the old credit card debt in the consolidation loan and new credit card debt on the credit cards. It’s a wicked spiral.

So don’t play the debt games. Credit cards aren’t necessarily the enemy, but using them without having the cash to back your purchases, that’s a problem, a problem that the best consolidation program in the world can’t solve.

Create vs React

 

kelly-sikkema-JRVxgAkzIsM-unsplash.jpgThese are two words that you probably wouldn’t naturally juxtapose, but I promise it makes sense.
I’ve talked about actions and habits before, about how important it is to focus on tangible actionable things in order to move forward and affect change. Well, creating vs reacting is another helpful way to think about action, more specifically, what drives action. Here goes.
We’ll start with reacting because for a lot of us it’s more familiar, also it’s the lesser of the two options. A reaction is usually a response to some sort of problem or threat, it’s negatively sourced, something bad has or could happen, and you need to react to prevent it. A common phrase in the knowledge working world is ‘putting out fires,’ meaning problems constantly arise and we’re constantly reacting to solve them. A reaction doesn’t really move things forward, its main goal is to keep the status quo, keep the business functioning, keep the customer happy, etc.
Creating, on the other hand, is much more exciting. Instead of arising out of a problem or threat, creativity is sourced from vision and purpose. Creating is about solving problems before they show up, about creating solutions and possibilities. It’s pro-active action instead of reactive action.
Here’s a quick example: let’s say you’re working for a customer-facing firm who provides financial coaching and investments. Clients have been semi-regularly frustrated by poor communication from the firm, and your job has often devolved into smoothing things over with disgruntled customers. You’re a reactor. But, dissatisfied with this type of work existence, you remember why you’re actually doing all this: to serve people well with the best financial and investment advice in the industry. So if that’s the purpose, reacting to communications problems is incongruous with that purpose. What would serve that purpose? A system of communication and education designed not only to clamp down on the ‘frustrated customer’ problem, but to help customers think differently about money and themselves!
Creating comes from a different place (vision and purpose) than reacting (fear and problems). See, juxtaposition!

Consumer vs Creator

On its surface, distinguishing between consumer and creator might seem to imply that you should stop watching Netflix and start writing a blog, at least that’s what comes to my mind. That’s an incomplete picture, but I do want to think about the difference between consuming and creating, and how we can be better creators.
A consumer is someone who maximizes intakes. Watching too much TV, eating too much food, or buying too many unnecessary things could all be symptoms. At its base, it is excessive, wasteful, and unfulfilling. That’s not to say consuming is all bad. If you don’t consume food you’ll die, we’re made to consume things. But the definition of a consumer here is someone who is addicted to over-consuming, who lives to consume, and that’s generally bad. You could say the point of consuming is to take.
A creator is someone who focuses on outputs. Creating doesn’t necessarily mean writing or drawing or filming, it can be almost anything that’s contributory. When you engineer additional efficiency into a process at work, or cook a meal from a new recipe, or finish your latest house project, that’s also creating. You could say the point of creating is to give.
None of us are only a creator or only a consumer, but people do seem to shade one towards or away from the two. If you find yourself too far over to the consumer side, which is where we tend to fall by default, it can be tough to dig yourself out and start creating. But here are a couple tips to get started:

  1. Think about your purpose. What are you here for? Who do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish? When you give those questions a good mulling over you’ll probably come up with answers that include creating. Write your answers down, set goals around them, keep reviewing them. A connection between purpose and goals, even between purpose and specific activities, is your guide. If a goal or activity doesn’t match up with your over-arching purpose you can cut it out, if it does match up, go after it. Without the clarity purpose brings, you’ll be tossed around and most likely end up settling back into comfortable consuming. The best way to start moving from consuming to creating is to know why you’re doing it.
  2. Read good books. This could technically be considered consuming, but it’s the best type of consuming, even a necessary type of consuming, in order to be able to create. If you’re not learning and growing it’s tough to have anything to share. Think about a preacher, they do lots of creating, to the tune of a 10+ page document (or two) per week. How can they possibly produce that kind of output? They read, a lot. They fill themselves up with ideas and information which they bring back to their congregations. The same is true for this blog, I wouldn’t have anything to write if I wasn’t reading. Reading should include articles and blog posts, but I specifically mention books because they’re the best way to interact with whole ideas and complete thoughts. Instead of only picking up bits and pieces of information, a book can change the way you think.
  3. Separate your consuming and creating tools. I’ve made multiple attempts to switch to an iPad only workflow in the last few years. One of the main problems I’ve run into is a confusion of purpose. My goal was to use the iPad for both creation and consumption, thereby reducing my technology loadout. It was a noble goal, but one which resulted in a lot of consuming and not much creating. For whatever reason, my mind has a hard time creating on a device that I also use for consuming, regardless of its capability or functionality (which is a whole other issue). Instead, when I use my MacBook mainly for creation (work, writing, projects, etc.), and my iPhone mainly for consumption (news, information, games, etc.), I’m much more productive.
  4. Carve out the time. This is where we often get stuck, who has the time to create things? You might have to get creative before you can create. The most important thing you can do here is to block out a chunk of time on your calendar. This time is sacred. During the block, turn off as many notifications as you can. Choose a place that will minimize distractions. I like to be somewhere other than my desk where normal working habits kick in. A coffee shop could be a nice change of pace, plus it provides a little extra motivation to commit to the time block. The point is to decide on a time and a place where you can focus. It takes some work to create a successful time-block, but it’s surprisingly enjoyable and energizing when you do it.
  5. Start small, continue daily. You don’t have to change your life to create something. Just pick one small thing and do it, today. Then do another small thing tomorrow, and then the next day. Your first time block could be 10 minutes deciding what or how you want to create. It can be directly related to your work or it could be the start of a new side hustle, as long as it involves creating. One thing I’ve committed to is writing 250 words per day. Before I set this goal for myself I had already been writing, but mostly in fits and starts, nothing consistent enough to build upon. That one small daily goal has been critical for me to remain consistent. It’s a lot easier to write 250 words per day than to write one blog post per week. Many small achievements performed consistently over time, one day at a time, will beat a big breakout effort one hundred times out of one hundred.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t have this all figured out, I still spend too much time consuming, but these are a few things that I’ve learned and found helpful. Consuming is easy, let’s do something hard.