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.

Motion vs Action

I read Atomic Habits by James Clear a little while back. The book is packed with helpful insights, a highly recommended read. One that stuck out to me is Clear’s distinction between what he calls motion and action.
Motion is like busywork or planning work. It’s often preparatory, and it rarely moves you forward. The great thing about motion is that it feels productive, but you don’t really have to do any real work. I love motion, and I’m really good at it. I’ve got my checklists and my idea notes, my daily planning routine, all of it.
We’ve all heard the phrase (well, maybe not all of us, it’s popular jargon in the business motivation world from Jim Collins) “good is the enemy of great.” Clear has a better one, a quote from Voltair, “the best is the enemy of good.” In our most impassioned moments when we’re moved to improve ourselves or situations, we tend to immediately get mired in thought about which direction to take. If you’re anything like me you’re obsessed with the theoretical best option. This applies to all sorts of things, like crippling indecision when facing a plethora of product options on Amazon, but especially when thinking about how to improve myself or my career or whatever else needs improving. What’s the best way to do it, or the best route to take? In my mind that’s the right question and it deserves a lot of attention. But the time I devote to that question is motion, and at this point, it’s close to 100% wasted. I might as well be tuning in to the financial news (gasp!).
In beautiful contrast stands action. We’ve got all sorts of nice pithy quotes for this one, “Well done is better than well said” (Benjamin Franklin), “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you” (Thomas Jefferson), “Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned (Peter Marshal), you get the picture. These are a little soupy but they’re actually pretty close to the truth. We need action! Think about writing your grocery list. The list is great, especially if your handwriting is nice, but writing the list isn’t going to put groceries in your pantry. It can help guide your shopping trip which is valuable, but you’ll still be hungry until you actually go shopping. And if you had to choose, wouldn’t it be better to go shopping without a list than to have the nicest, cleanest, most thorough list without ever shopping? Think about sales calls. You could spend a lot of time formulating a call list and writing up the perfect script, but until you actually pick up the phone you haven’t accomplished anything. Lists and scripts are motion, shopping and calling are action, you get it. Motion isn’t worthless, but only action can create an outcome.
So that’s the point, as fun and busy feeling as planning and emails and lists are, those things are motion, and motion can’t move the needle, motion won’t ever create an outcome. Act!

Habit disruption

Full disclosure, I’ve been reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, which is hard to over-sell (it’s really good), and this writeup includes ideas I’ve gleaned there.

Clear structures the book in a really helpful and practical way. He deals with both the creation of good habits which you’d expect, but also the opposite side: disrupting bad habits. Perhaps as important as establishing good habits is getting rid of, or at least minimizing bad habits. Most of us have gone through life accumulating all sorts of habits with hardly a thought to why. They’ve become so automatic we don’t even think about what they are, let alone why we do them. Some are certainly good (brushing your teeth before bed), but oftentimes many of them are bad (see a cookie eat a cookie), and the bad ones are the ones that are tough to deal with. Clear points out that we fall into habits because they’re easy. Many of them develop as a response to some sort of stress because they offer some sort of relief, like Netflix binging after a long day at work, but they begin because they’re easy. By now these bad habits are so ingrained it seems almost impossible to dig ourselves out. As easy as it was to fall into these bad habits, to break out of them seems incredibly difficult. Clear offers a remarkably simple idea here. If we fall into these bad habits because they’re easy, what if we just made the habit a little more difficult? An example from the Netflix binge example would be to unplug the TV every time you turn it off, which would require that you plug it back in next time you want to watch. That one little step does two things: 1) It simply makes it harder to follow through on the routine. Adding difficulty to anything makes us less likely to do that thing, humans follow the path of least resistance. 2) Perhaps more importantly, it disrupts the automatic habit loop that takes over when you step into your living room in the evening. Breaking the habit loop is critical. The simple act of plugging in the TV, which is not part of the normal routine, takes you off autopilot. It forces you to think about what you’re doing (do I really need to watch more TV right now?) and gives you the chance to choose to do something different (maybe I’ll grab a book instead!). Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, points out that people who simply put some thought into their routines are much more likely to complete the desired task (I wrote a little bit about this here). Conversely, when people are forced to put some thought into the routine they want to break they become much more likely to find success in breaking that routine.

So the moral is, set up a few roadblocks for your bad habits. Clear helpfully fleshes out the idea that in order to change our habits we need to make good habits easy and bad habits hard. A little extra friction between you and your bad habits could make a lot of difference in your pursuit of good habits.