We are only a month or so into 2021, so I have two questions for you. First of all, did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? And secondly, are you still sticking with it?
If so, I’m sending you a virtual high five! And if not, I’ll still send you a shout-out because resolutions are hard!
In thinking back over the last several years, I’m not sure whether I’ve been able to stick with even one resolution past January 10th. And if you’re anything like me, abandoning a resolution has nothing to do with motivation.
It also has nothing to do with the inability to recognize the need for change.
We all have things in our lives that we know we need to change. Whether it’s exercising regularly, eating healthier, or changing our mindset, opportunities to live a better life abound.
And the start of a new year offers a compelling beginning to what we hope will ultimately be that better life.
Except it never entirely turns out that way. Let me tell you why.
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The Myth of the Resolution
While driving around one day, I noticed a somewhat cryptic sign which read, “resolutions are for quitters.” It happened to be shortly after the New Year, and the sign was advertising a burger place.
For whatever reason, this phrase stuck with me. And I can’t say whether the marketing ploy motivated anyone to suddenly abandon their resolutions and pull over for a delicious burger with a side of fries chased down by a frosty cold one.
But in its own strange and slightly mysterious way, the sign spoke truth to me. Because resolutions really are for quitters.
Resolutions are all but guaranteed to fail. The whole concept of suddenly starting or stopping some profoundly ingrained habit is a bit ridiculous just because the calendar flips over.
As if anyone could suddenly change themselves simply through grit and sheer willpower.
Despite my skepticism around resolutions themselves, I truly believe in the transformative power of change. But this sign had me thinking that maybe resolutions get a bad rap. That perhaps the difficulty isn’t in the concept of the resolution itself but instead in its execution.
Resolutions, Habits, or Both?
I know I started by talking about resolutions. But resolutions are only one small piece of the equation.
Whether it involves getting into shape, writing a novel, or becoming a better pianist, you’re going to need more than the simple desire for change to achieve the desired outcome.
You could consider resolutions as the goal itself, while habits are the small, daily steps you take to achieve that goal. And the outcome depends upon your habits.
Let’s think about the following (highly unscientific) equation:
Resolution + Habits = Success
Unfortunately, the following equation is equally valid:
Resolution + Habits = Failure
As you can see from both equations, you can start with the same resolution but, depending upon the habits, end up with entirely different outcomes.
Habits either bring us closer to the life we want, or they push us further away from it.
And these small actions repeated over time add up to massive change.
If you think about it, making a resolution is the easy part. The piece most people miss (myself included) is the habit.
So how do you effectively change your habits to transform your life?
Unfortunately, what you think you know about habits just might be leading you astray.
The Myth of the Habit
How many times have you heard that all it takes to form a habit is repetition?
That if you repeat some action x number of times, it will suddenly stick. And boom! Instant transformation.
I’ll admit that it’s a great concept. Repeat and be transformed.
Except how many times do you need to repeat something for it finally to stick? Thirty? Sixty? 302?
Despite thorough searching, I’ve never uncovered the exact answer to that question.
It also doesn’t address what to do if you break your streak. Do you have to start all over from the very beginning if you miss a day?
If so, that sounds more than a little depressing.
There’s also very little advice out there for the logistics of fitting this new habit into your life.
Like, should you just haphazardly shove it into your lunch hour? Right away in the morning? Or maybe before bed?
Most of the information out there is broad, generic, and implies that changing your habits is insanely hard. Period. End of sentence. Good luck and best wishes!
It’s no wonder there’s such a negative stigma around resolutions and habits!
Fortunately, I recently read a book that changes everything I thought I knew about habits. It sheds light on why habits typically fail, and it provides a clear road map for positive change.
The book is called Atomic Habits, written by James Clear, and if this is the first time you have heard about it, now is the time to take a closer look!
Change Your Habits Intuitively
Before discovering this book, I felt overwhelmed by the entire concept of habits. It was almost as if the accumulation of failed past attempts to change my habits made me think that future change was therefore improbable.
Despite these feelings, a small piece of me knew the untapped potential inside if I could unravel the habit puzzle.
And so, I picked up Atomic Habits, which changed everything I thought I knew about habits.
It completely dispels the myth that change has to be complicated. Instead, the book suggests that you can achieve actual long-term change if you start small and work with rather than against your current habits.
Throughout the book, Clear shares dramatic stories of how tiny changes transform lives. One pound lost leads to two, and eventually, over one hundred pounds are gone. Sports teams so terrible they have no chance of winning a game, much less a championship become the best in the league. Clear even writes about his recovery from a horrific accident and how his path to discovering better habits eventually led to a bestselling book.
These stories quickly establish Clear as an expert in the field. But it is his straightforward approach to the somewhat complex subject area that gives you hope that you (yes, you!) can make positive changes in your own life.
In short, Clear breaks the concept of habits down into such minuscule pieces that making considerable changes to your life is significantly less intimidating. He teaches you how to incorporate habits seamlessly into your life instead of haphazardly shoving them in wherever they happen to fit.
And that is honestly worth its weight in gold.
Better, Little by Little
I’m not sure about you, but I tend to get overwhelmed by the mere thought of change. I have perfectionist tendencies which often result in completely unrealistic expectations about my performance. My mind goes into overdrive and happily spins off into unimaginable tangents about why change will fail. Or it will conjure up images of the enormous sacrifice required for even the slightest habit change.
These tendencies mean that I don’t always move forward as quickly as I would like to habit change.
But Clear introduces a straightforward concept. It’s a concept that quickly dispels any attempts by my ever-helpful brain to complicate.
This concept is becoming 1% better every day. The theory behind it is that you don’t have to make colossal changes in a short amount of time. All you need is to be 1% better than you were yesterday. Eventually, those small gains add up, and after a while, you’re significantly better at whatever it is you’re trying to do.
Clear’s is perhaps the least intimidating approach to habit change I’ve ever come across. It’s also an ideal response to my perfectionist tendencies, leading me down the path of negativity and eventual failure when left unchecked.
It’s oddly comforting to think that massive change only requires improving by 1% every day. Not 50%. Or even 25%. But simply 1%. This concept makes transformation attainable and realistic.
You may also enjoy reading this post about perfectionism.
Consider Your Identity
Another concept I found extremely valuable in the book is the relationship between habits and identity. Your daily actions (your habits) work to either prove or disprove your identity.
And the way you think of yourself determines your habits to some extent. Habits and identity weave closely together.
This is a powerful concept that takes habit change from something you haphazardly force into your life at the start of a new year to simply who you are as a person.
Let me walk you through an example from my own life.
Piano Player vs. Pianist
I’ve played piano since the age of 7 and even went on to study music in college. Ultimately, my career took me down a completely different path, but my love for music remains.
A few years ago, I decided to improve my piano technique and repertoire, even if it wasn’t my career. I resolved to play more advanced piano repertoire. And the habit that would get me there? Effective daily piano practice.
And so, I tried to incorporate practice into my life daily. But I hit multiple roadblocks. Work. School. Sick kids. I would go months without even touching the instrument.
As time went on, I drifted further and further from my goals.
After months of frustration about my lack of progress, a question suddenly popped into my head straight out of nowhere. What are some easy ways I can incorporate this goal into my life?
I began looking for ways to do just that by listening to podcasts and reading blog posts. And I lowered my practice standards from 30 minutes daily to whatever amount of time I had.
Not only did I relax my standards to reach my goal more quickly, but I changed my entire identity.
I essentially began thinking of myself as a pianist instead of someone who just plays piano on the side.
And although I subconsciously reached this conclusion before Atomic Habits even came out, while reading the book, I immediately recognized the concept as one which has already yielded massive success in my own life.
The book gave language to a technique I had somehow stumbled upon in everyday life.
Powerful, isn’t it?
You may also enjoy reading this post about how to improve your piano practice.
Change Your Habits by Considering Your Identity
The primary reason why considering myself a pianist rather than someone who happens to play an instrument is so powerful is that it shifts the focus. Instead of focusing so much on making sure I hit my daily habit of practicing, I see myself as someone who enjoys piano practice.
The constant frustration of not meeting practice requirements is gone because I can’t wait to sit down and play daily. Piano practice is my creative outlet and satisfies my desire to think deeply while putting the day’s stress behind me.
The daily practice supports my identity as a pianist, reinforcing my desire to practice. Defining my identity gives me a frame of reference from which I can decide my habits that further support or oppose this identity.
The concept of redefining your identity is the type of stuff missing from other advice out there about changing your habits. And this is the powerful stuff that transforms your life!
It’s Your Turn
Until stumbling across this book, I truly felt that existing information on how to change your habits was vague, disheartening, and impossibly difficult to incorporate. Atomic Habits covers information that had previously been missing in my life, and I can guarantee you will also find value in the book!
It’s a step-by-step guide to re-imagining your identity and then living up to that identity. But not in an overwhelming way which makes you question whether the change is worth the effort.
Instead, the book gently guides you through small and straightforward transformations that support your own identity. It reinforces what you always knew deep down about habits but somehow never could bring forth.
And it’s the missing key to transforming your life.
I genuinely hope this post has inspired you to get out there and change your habits for the better! Make sure to grab your copy of the book here:
Don’t forget to comment below about habits and how you are incorporating this into your own life!