I'm not a fan of New Year's resolutions. We know that people keep less than 5% of New Year’s resolutions, and I think a big reason for this is that anything we are trying to change in our lives is really about self-discipline.
I realized this after spending two years reading what positive psychologists have discovered makes people happy. And, it turns out, that everything we know about what makes us happy comes down to having self-discipline to do what we know we want to be doing.
So of course making a New Year's resolution doesn't work, because it's the act of saying, “I want to make a change, but I'm not going to do it now. I'm going to do it in January.” That's not self-discipline, that's procrastination, right?
If you want to make a change in your life, you can start right now, with something that is not that hard to change.
1. Start small.
Because the best way to make a change is to start with something small, relatively easy to do, and not necessarily related to what you want to change. Solving problems is a snowball thing, which might be the most transformative research I have come across in the last five years because it has given me the encouragement to get started on lots of personal changes that look very hard.
For example, if you go tell yourself you have to drive to the gym every day, you can change your life. You don't need to force yourself to work out. You probably will, but you can tell yourself you just need to drive to the gym. And reorganize your day so you can do that. And if you actually go into the gym, then you will eat better. So you don't need a goal of working out more or eating better. You just need to change your daily schedule so you drive to the gym and sit in the parking lot.
2. Think in increments of three weeks.
And, more good news: Your New Year's resolution really takes only three weeks to complete. Because if you force yourself to change your behavior for three weeks, your brain will start to develop more dopamine in response to the behavior that you are trying to change to, according to Monika Fleshner, a neuroimmuno-physiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For example, after three weeks, your brain will start to release dopamine when it thinks about going to the gym instead of when it thinks about ditching the gym.
3. Get the wording right.
Be careful about how you word your goals. If you say, “I need to go to the gym more,” just forget it. It'll never happen. You need to break down the steps to defined tasks. You should say, “I need to drive to the gym at 4:30 every day and I cannot drive out of the parking lot until 5:30.”
The biggest source of poorly worded goals is the urge to do something to please someone else. It's very hard to write a clearly worded goal if it does not come from inside you. “Live up to my potential.” That is a great example of a terrible goal. Besides the fact that living up to one's potential is BS, it is not actually a goal, either. I mean, what is potential? How do you know it? How do you know if you are there? What does it look like?
4. Visualize what you will look like.
Research reveals lots of tricks for getting you to stay on your path to your goal — tying success to money, telling friends, etc..
But this is a trick I really like: There’s a guy, Jim Fannin, who coaches professional athletes like Alex Rodriguez. He says that the key to making these guys great is visualization. He teaches them to visualize what success looks like.
If you can't do that, it doesn't mean that it doesn't apply to your goal. It means your goal is bad. Psychologists understand that people are very unlikely to reach any goal you can't visualize. And university labs have applied this theory to just about everything — from throwing a fastball to having an orgasm.
5. Forget New Year’s day. Start now.
Pick one, very reasonable thing you can change in your life for three weeks straight. Just to practice self-discipline. Don’t even worry about the other, big stuff you want to change. Start off 2010 by creating a path to success.