It has recently come to my attention that I’m really bad at follow through.
I have big plans. Big ideas. In fact, the last few weeks have been full of statements like:
“I think this year… once a month we should….* insert activity*”
They’re all nice ideas, but since I’m up to a few dozen ‘once a month activities’, at this point my girlfriend is just rolling her eyes every time I send out a new one. She’s the one who very kindly informed me that maybe I should temper my expectations because I wasn’t the best at… following through.
I’d love to argue, but sadly it’s pretty freaking true.
And so, with the dawning of a new year I’m left with a couple of choices. I can toss all my big plans, dreams, goals, and resolutions up against the wall and hope something sticks… or maybe I just don’t commit to doing anything this year.
I’ll just see how things turn out. Go with the ole flow…
OR… I can dive headlong into mystery box number three and figure out how I can get better at actually changing some of the things that I’d love to change.
TO THE INTERNET!!!!!
My initial findings were pretty tepid… a whole bunch of articles on ‘making a list’ and ‘setting a timetable’, which I’m not saying aren’t fine ideas, but we’ve all tried these things (or we’ve read them and decided we don’t want to try them)! And yet still, so many of us dream up these big start-of-the-year goals… that never make it past January (ya, I said ‘us’… I know I’m not the only guilty one here).
But luckily there are a whole bunch of insanely smart people out there doing some really interesting research on this very thing. And so, I’ve put together a few actually useful ways to stick to those new year’s resolutions.
Number 1: You can’t change something you don’t think it’s possible to change
This seems like common sense, but it’s the first trap that so many of us fall into.
Resolutions are so often born out of the feeling that we really ‘should’ be different. But that’s not the same as actually ‘wanting’ to be different, actually believing that we can change.
The ‘should’ resolution plays out like you think it would: a few months of half-hearted attempts. But since these kinds of resolutions don’t mean anything to us, they ultimately fall by the wayside.
So a few weeks of budgeting, say, will completely implode the first time money gets stressful, because the truth is … you never really wanted to do it in the first place, and you probably don’t actually believe it will make a difference.
There’s some pretty interesting research out there on the importance of belief in the process of changing things. Scientists have looked at things like Alcoholics Anonymous and tried to pin down exactly what helps addicts find lasting change, and one of the big pieces to that puzzle is: belief.
Charles Duhigg mentions in his book on habits: “we know that for habits to change, people must believe that change is feasible”.
It may seem like an oversimplification but it’s exactly the question that you should ask yourself before diving into the huge amount of work it takes to actually follow through with your resolutions…
Do I actually believe that this is possible?
If the answer is no, don’t get too sad. Maybe the timing isn’t right for you to work on that right now, or maybe you just need some inspiration. Dig down into stories of people who have accomplished what you’re trying to do, or go down to number 6… which is going to help you a ton!
Number 2: Get to know your habits… intimately
So you’ve got something you’d like to change.
You’d like to shop less, or maybe make a budget.
There’s a good chance that the cause of and solution to your problem is nestled in something called the basal ganglia. That’s the part of your brain where your habits live!
I’ve become completely obsessed lately about a book called The Power of Habits: by Charles Duhigg (I mentioned him in number 1). It’s given me the wonderful ability to twist every topic of conversation around to habits, causing the people in my life and to love me (and my obsessions) even more.
But despite the annoyance of my friends, family and that guy on the subway who kept pretending he didn’t hear me, I’m completely convinced by Duhigg’s argument that habits are at the core of everything we do. And there’s one simple concept that he talks about that can help you right now, and you don’t even have to read the whole book!
It starts with understanding how a habit breaks down (stick with me… this is awesome). According to Duhigg, there are three parts:
A cue —— a routine —— a reward
So, in my shopping habit, my cue could be feeling stressed. My routine would be going shopping. And my reward the happiness of having new things.
He goes into depth about how to change this pattern, and it’s not an easy thing, but there is one simple lesson you can take from his work right now that will put you way ahead in the quest for new year’s dominance:
Awareness changes everything.
Habits happen without thinking, but as soon as you shine a light on them and think about what sets them off, and what you’re getting out of it… you’ve made a huge step.
In fact, Nathan Azrin, a developer of habit reversal training, says: “it seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it.”
So there it is. You don’t need to know all the ins and outs of habit reversal (although it’s really interesting). Just take a look at the habit, or pattern, or behaviour that you want to change and get to know it a bit.
Once I know that I want to shop when I’m feeling stressed, and that what I’m really looking for is the happiness of having a new thing, I can look for a way to get that result without dropping a few hundred at the mall.
So, what’s the habit at the core of the thing you’re trying to change? What sets it off? What do you get out of it? Does it flare up in certain situations? Places? Around certain people?
Knowledge is power, people. And awareness is the simplest thing you can do to create the biggest possible change.
Number 3: Get used to starting over (Understanding the Fresh Start Effect)
There’s a reason why so many people try to start up new habits on January 1st. It’s a new year, and it’s easy to put some distance in between that person that you were (gross) and the person that you were clearly always meant to be (AMAZING).
But here’s the truth, even if you master all the things on this list, you’re going to have days, weeks, or months in which your new habit just doesn’t really stick.
For most of us, that cues a feeling of failure and we never really try again.. at least not until next year.
I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to wait until next year… and science agrees.
Meet Katie Milkman, an associate professor of behavioural economics, who has been researching something called “the fresh start effect”. It’s basically just a fancy name for a thing you’ve already felt: that feeling of ‘I can be anything’ that you get at the beginning of the year.
She confirms that it’s a great time to try to start something new, but it’s not the only time.
People also get that feeling at the beginning of the month (or even the week), after holidays and birthdays. You’ll also get a fresh start buzz after a big move.
Knowing that the body gets a new batch of ‘can do’ energy every time you land on one of these fresh starts can be a huge tool for anyone. The year is full of fresh starts. If (read: when) you fail, don’t worry. Shake it off, and start fresh all over again.
Number 4: Science your problem with some hardcore experimentation
The problem with trying to change something in the new year is that I usually only make a half-assed attempt that ends up falling short, and then I’m left wondering… did I just not fully commit to making a change, or am I trying to change something that isn’t really possible?
I don’t learn anything.
He starts by approaching every resolution with 2 questions:
- Why don’t I do this already?
- Why do I feel the need to do this know?
The point is so his economist brain can try to figure out:
- What’s the practical barrier that’s keeping me from changing?
- What’s the emotional motivation that’s going to help me smash that barrier?
Already I think his simple thought process is awesomely useful, but then he continues:
He suggests testing a change with a ‘time limited commitment’.
Basically, he’s saying you should go really hard for a certain amount of time. Be super disciplined. Don’t give yourself any outs. That way at the end of the time period (a month, a few weeks, several months) you know for sure if this new habit, or change in lifestyle, is actually helpful or not.
I love it because it keeps us from falling into a really familiar resolution trap: assuming that if we could only do this one thing that would solve all our problems.
The truth is… we don’t do it, so we don’t know if it will solve all our problems.
Adopting an attitude of experimentation can help you actually find the change that helps you live the life you’re imagining for yourself in 2016.
For example, I’ve got a bit of a problem with eating out that spiralled out of control in December. It’s bad. It’s not just about the money, it’s also about the fact that my body is now craving all the things that come with eating out all the time: salt, sugar, booze.
The goal I set for myself is to only cook at home for the entire month of January. It seems like the right kind of goal, but who knows. I might find that I spend far more on eating in, than I did eating out semi regularly. I might find that I cook really unhealthy food at home.
But hopefully at the end of the month, if I’m really disciplined I will, at the very least, have another piece of information that will help me solve my problem.
Take one of your resolutions and ask Austin’s questions. What’s a time limited commitment that makes sense to you? Write it down, and commit to not letting yourself off the hook!
Number 5: Temptation Bundling
There are things that I do that I feel guilty about doing and there are things that I don’t do that I feel guilty about not doing.
Temptation bundling is a concept from the mind of Katie Milkman (of Fresh Start Effect fame) that tries to smash those two things together.
The idea is simple.
Do you love watching The Office on Netflix every night, but kind of feel bad about it because you ‘should’ be doing something else?
Do you never manage to do your budgeting because you kind of hate it, but then feel guilty about not doing it?
Why not only let yourself watch The Office (or whatever show you like) when you’re doing your budgeting??
You’ve combined a guilty pleasure with a guilty ‘should’ and are now killing at life.
I first heard of the concept on an episode of Freakanomics called When Willpower isn’t enough. Check it out if you’d like to learn more.
But in the meantime here are a bunch of other (non financial) temptation bundle ideas:
- get a pedicure while answering work emails
- only go get a favourite burger when you’re with a relative that drives you crazy
- drink scotch while folding laundry #mmmmm
Number 6: Don’t try to do it alone
There is a ton of information in this piece, and so I expect you might forget half of it before you reach the bottom of this page… But if there’s one thing that you should absolutely retain from all of my blabbing on it is this:
DON’T TRY TO CHANGE IT ALONE.
I don’t care what ‘it’ is. If it’s money related, or fitness related, or about your relationships.
There’s often so much shame associated with these ‘flaws’ that we’re trying to change. We’re hoping to change them in secret and then do a huge reveal to our friends and family.
Look how different I am!!!
But doing it alone is so much harder than bringing together a team that can help you… people to keep you accountable.
Take it from Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group:
“There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experience. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.”
Belief. There it is again. We’ve come full circle.
Over and over again as I read about following through and habit change I came across that word. Maybe it’s the artist in me that immediately attaches myself to the least concrete concept, but I love how essential it seems to be.
And that’s why it’s essential that you believe me when I tell you to find someone to help you: a family member, a best friend, a stranger, or some guy who writes a blog about finance (I will totally be your resolution accountability partner … if it’s about money/finance).
So how’s 2016 going to be different?
What do you really want to change? What’s the resolution that keeps coming up at every one of your ‘fresh starts’ but never seems to get done? Maybe this is the year, maybe this is time to try something new: temptation bundling, or maybe a limited time commitment.
The incredible thing for me, as I read all of these methods and studies, was realizing how much more possible it is to change habits and lifestyle than I had previously liked to believe.
If I keep telling myself it’s impossible and really hard, it serves as a great excuse for not doing anything.
But the more I realize how possible it is, the excuses just strip away.
And I’m starting to believe that the only thing coming between me and the life that I want to live… is me.
What’s coming between you and your resolutions? Which one of these methods sounds the most interesting to you?
Want to start getting control of your money? How can I help?
Financial Planner/Opera Singer
Money never came naturally to me. In fact… I was a bit of a disaster. I remember (very clearly) what it feels like to be ‘financially out of control’.
And honestly, I still get stressed about money… that doesn’t stop… the difference is that now I have the tools to deal with that stress.
And those tools are what’s made it possible for me to build a life full of the things I want: art, creativity, travel, family and more.