Happy New Year, everyone! I can’t believe we’re almost a week into the brand new year. It’s going to be an awesome one!
A week ago or so, a lot of us started to reflect on the past year and think of what we want to accomplish in the New Year. There’s tons of articles out now about setting New Year’s resolutions (and even whether doing that is a good idea or not) and it’s generally a time where people are geared up for “new habits” and thinking about the themes they want to change.
And you know what happens next; all those good intentions, the containers from the Container Store, the new gym trainers, the new juicer and the new notebook for writing down household expenses, all gather dust in our guilt-closet before March if we’re not careful.
If you’ve done the most important part (listening to your own heart about what needs to change in your life, or what you’d love to create) here’s some things I’ve learned about making the energy of change and creativity into NEW habits instead of just “resolutions” –
Big elephant, small bites
How do you eat a life-sized chocolate elephant? One bite at a time.
The biggest obstacle to making any new change is that seemingly insurmountable gap between the big dream (“Be a better person” “Lose weight” “Move on from ex” “Quit smoking”) and real results. We’re often stymied when it comes to figuring out how to make nebulous or big plans reality. In this case, the chocolate elephant in the room is your dreams, goals and visions. You will need both big dreams and small bites to finish the job. A big dream is a goal, an end-game, something you desire to attain for yourself in the long run. Smaller “bites” are that big dream broken down into doable tasks that you do every day, which will add up to attaining your goal.
Small bites may not seem like much, but they’re just as important as the big dreams. Your mind needs a way to see that there are doable things you can do to make those visions concrete. Waiting for something to magically manifest won’t help, and sitting there looking at that huge chocolate elephant can cause you to give up before you even take a single bite.
Let’s say your big goal is to “be organized”, this instruction is so undefined and huge that you’ll never want to tackle it. Small bites, on the other hand, can make the goal feel like a reality right now. A small bite is your specific, small (remember it has to be doable!) action you’ll do today:
This morning I’m going to recycle all the magazines and take-out menus that aren’t current.
Create a small bite objective for each big goal, each day… the smaller the better:
Today I’m going to create a mail centre with envelopes, stamps and a place to put incoming mail, and outgoing mail, for example.
As those small bites add up, and the victory you feel when you accomplish them will help you be excited and creative about making new ones as the daunting task seems smaller and more manageable. If you have trouble figuring out a small, doable task, find a book related to the goal you want to achieve. A book can give you lots of ideas about actions you can take and you can invent your own.
Use your current habits
We’re creatures of habit, so why not use existing ingrained routines to get started on new ones? New habits simply need repetition to become set and what better way than to use things you do each day already.
Use existing habits as a basis for your small-bite action goals wherever possible. For example, if you want add extra steps to your pedometer, you can use a quick daily walk that is already a habit for you (to and from your car, your path to work) and make it a bit longer each day. If you want to keep your briefcase tidy, associate a new habit with something you do already:
When I plop my briefcase on the table tonight, I’ll take out the papers and items I don’t need for tomorrow.
If you cook dinner at home every night, use this meal to create a new dietary habit instead of forcing yourself to make diet lunches:
For dinner tonight, I’ll make a dish with greens and whole grains
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. If you exercise in the evening already, then dreaming up a new scheme to wake up at the crack of dawn to go to the gym might be counter-productive for you.
Making defined, specific times to do your tasks and small-bite actions will help you introduce new habits to your routine and follow through.
The human brain builds synaptic connections and strengthens the efficiency of neurons in tasks that it does routinely. Synaptic “pruning” helps us put more energy into the things that we practice and do often by pruning away and eliminating connections we don’t use very often. Making new habits pair with existing strong connections helps you incorporate them faster.
The ivy effect
As an ivy plant grows, it senses progress and produces new cells which create tendrils, leaves and shoots. When the ivy comes in contact with objects, it alters its root structure to climb trees, and even walls. The more it grows, the better it can climb. Your new habits and changes are just like that ivy, constantly building a bigger system and structure. Seeing the results of your effort build an unbroken streak every day can be amazingly effective to help you keep going. Use an app, calendar, journal or wipe board to keep track of your “streak”. Each time you do your daily small-bite task, create a check mark.
It sounds silly but it works. Seinfeld’s famous “habit chain” operates on this same principle. When Jerry Seinfeld was a rising comedian, he knew that he’d have to consistently develop new jokes. To keep at it, even when he wasn’t in the mood, he took a giant wall calendar and marked a red “x” on the date whenever he achieved his goal of writing every day. When he saw those “x” marks adding up like links in a chain, he was inspired to keep going.
If you’re into technology – there’s a ton of apps for tracking habits and reinforcing patterns so there’s sure to be one that works for you. I’ve tried a few that have reminders like “Fabulous: Motivate Me!” for Android… but I have found a visual representation of progress works best so using an app on my phone to write all over a pdf calendar page lets me see a string of habits collect.
Cut the distractions
The best way to create changes and new routines is to make your environment less cluttered with distraction. Simplify wherever you can and make the items you need for your goal easy to reach and get to.
For months my goal of having a tidy house was thwarted by my bathroom vanity. Somehow, in spite of my best intentions, it became a repository for old receipts, coins, empty jars, products, and other junk. It was a disorganized mess and it was difficult to keep clean.
Finally, I decided to place out only those items I used every day out on the vanity and shelves nearby… nothing else! Something strange happened immediately. Without effort, I kept the entire vanity neat as a pin, with items put away properly and the vanity and sink wiped down every day. (I realized that all that clutter had made me give up and let junk land where it may.) Being able to find things fast, when I needed them, was the reward that kept my habit going.
Be here now
Failure starts with unrealistic expectations and living in the future instead of the present. Maybe you want to have a healthier diet and daydream about being skinny and having lots of romantic attention from partners who find the new, slimmer you irresistible. But when you look in the mirror, it’s not happening fast enough and you beat yourself up for still being chubby, and because you don’t have six-pack abs and you can’t cook a gourmet twelve course raw feast, you give up on yourself and have a basket of French fries.
I have a long list of failed New Year’s resolutions in years past with crazy stuff like, “learn to read Ovid’s Metamorphosis in Latin,” or, “make all my food from scratch” perfectly reasonable, creative goals for someone… but for me they just gathered failure dust because I didn’t create an expectation (learn more words in Latin, make some meals at home..) that I could actually DO. At the end of the day, we can only do what matters to our heart in the PRESENT.
Instead of this defeating, demoralizing pattern of expecting instant results or living in fantasy imagination of the future, put your energy and focus on what you are doing today to attain your goals. Be patient with yourself and tell yourself you’re doing a good job right here in the present. Have your goals in mind, but focus on the small-bites and immediate tasks far more than anything in the future. You will absolutely see progress if you stay grounded in the present. If you slip up, the present moment is always a new beginning.
*article adapted from my article “Making New Years Resolutions Stick” Psychic Guidepost magazine