I usually shy away from the whole New Year’s Resolution thing. Like many traditions, it seemed arbitrary to me, even a little bit silly.
Sure, the collective effervescence is alluring. Knowing that millions of people are in the same boat, enthusiastic about making a change, telling themselves that this year is going to be “the one,” there’s a sense of camaraderie among strangers. Resolutions feel like they could work, and a part of us believes in it, even if we’re cynical.
Over the last year, a weird thing happened: I became a believer. Sort of.
I stumbled upon a model for personal change that actually works.
The 4-Part Formula That Works
1. Start small.
2. Focus on actions, not outcomes.
3. Only change one thing at a time.
4. Don’t expect it to be perfect.
Lessons From 2012
In January 2012, I started the Monthly Experiments Project. The project is pretty simple: Take on a new personal experiment for one month, and see what happens.
The goal is to have fun, try new things, and maybe create some better habits along the way.
It started for the same reason a lot of people take on a New Year’s Resolution: despite being lucky in countless ways, my life wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. I had a list of stuff I wanted to do differently:
I imagined that those little things would somehow add up to a better life.
1. Starting Small
It’s a lot easier to make small changes than big ones. This is where a lot of people go wrong with their resolutions. They try to do too much, inevitably they slip up, and then quit.
People who want to improve their fitness might be tempted to make an extreme resolution, like running 5 miles a day or working out 7 days a week. If you start that stuff out of nowhere, it’ll be a shock to your system and your lifestyle. That’s something you can work up to, but it’s not a good way to start. It’s too much change.
2. Focus On Actions, Not Outcomes
In January, I decided to stop working late. During the previous months, I’d gotten into a habit of being a workaholic. I often worked late at night, even all night long. I was stressed, tired and starting to get sick.
The outcome I wanted was to stop being a workaholic, but I couldn’t simply choose to have that outcome. Just like you can’t choose to be in great shape, or run a marathon or write a novel. Those are outcomes. You can’t choose outcomes, but you can choose actions.
In January of 2012, I made one simple rule: stop work at 5:00 every day. That’s it. Nothing big. Just one month of quitting at 5:00. The first few days were tough, but it got easier and easier. I went from working 80 hours a week to working 40. I was spending more time with my family, and doing the fun things I’d been missing out on as a workaholic.
When the month was over, I didn’t have to try anymore. Stopping work at 5:00 had become a habit, effortless, and intrinsically rewarding. I only worked past 5:00 a couple of times the rest of the year. I had changed my life for the better.
3. One Change At A Time
Maybe you want to run a marathon, write a novel, learn a new language, start a business, spend more time with your family, eat better, and travel more. Good for you! You can certainly do all those things, but you can’t do them all at once. Not well, anyway.
This is another way I see a lot of resolutions go wrong. People try to change EVERYTHING at once. Their ambition is admirable, but it’s not realistic to think you can wake up a completely different person.
I make one small change every month. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t, but it always feels manageable because it’s just one thing.
In 2012, I did 8 different 1-month experiments: I stopped working late, did a 1-month juice fast, tried a 4-day workweek, took a 4,000 mile road trip with my wife and dog, spent time every day getting rid of stuff I didn’t need, lived without a car for a month, wrote for an hour a day, and started to practice mindfulness.
That’s a lot of stuff, and I’m proud to say that some of those things have become habits that I’ve continued in my everyday life. Making that much change in a year was a challenge, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it all at once. It worked because I focused on one thing at a time.
4. Forget About Perfection
If you do decide to take on a New Year’s Resolution, or a monthly experiment, you have to accept that it’s not going to be perfect. You’re going to slip up and struggle a bit at first. That’s ok. It’s part of the process.
If your goal is to be perfect, you’re going to fail. So, don’t make perfection your goal, just make habits your goal. If you just focus on creating one new habit at a time, and you tie that habit to an action instead of an outcome, you’re much more likely to succeed.
I treat things as an experiment, because it feels ok when it doesn’t go the way I hope it will. I say you can’t fail at an experiment. Just go into it with an open mind, start small, and see what happens.
Good luck, and happy new year!