Zen Habits has a great post today on creating a habit for fitness, but the advice can be applied to any resolution you’re making for the new year:
“But resolutions never last. As you might already know, I’m not a fan of resolutions. Instead of creating a list of resolutions this year, create a new habit. Habits last, and they lead to long-term fitness (and more). They require more patience, but they are worth the wait.”
How many of us spent last year, and the year before, and the year before that, crafting out resolutions that we never stuck to?
“I will have $XYZ amount of money in my bank account by the end of next year”
“I will lose 10kg this year”
“I will go to the gym 3 times a week”
“I will spend more time with my kids”
As the year passes, the demands of work take over our lives, we blow our money on an expensive gift we don’t need, overeat because of the stress, stop going to the gym, and spend even less time with the kids.
Resolutions are great motivators in the short term, but they simply don’t stick because we’re not used to them. There was an example in the Zen Habits post about how you could go through an intense workout phase and get those washboard abs in 2 months. Then you’re likely to fall back into overeating and get an even bigger belly than before. 500 crunches a day is a painful, tedious activity that simply isn’t sustainable in the long run if you’re not used to it.
It’s obvious that we have to start forming habits rather than resolutions. Habits that don’t really focus on a goal per se, but on a process aimed at being so automatic that you simply do them without thinking. Like brushing your teeth or having coffee in the morning. Is your ultimate goal to get those washboard abs? A good habit would be to start with something small, by setting aside 10 mins, three times a week to do crunches. Once that small practice becomes a habit, you can start to increase the frequency. Does it matter that you don’t get those washboard abs by the end of 2012? Nope, but at least you’ve cultivated a process that’s helping you slowly but surely move towards that ultimate goal – giving you a huge lead over the millions of people who try to reach their goals too fast and end up failing.
Starting a habit isn’t easy though – just ask anyone who’s ever tried to diet. We’re all human, and overcoming that huge inertia within us takes a helluva willpower. I’m not a huge fan of willpower. In fact, I have terrible willpower. Put a beer in front of me and I will drink it, even if I’m trying to cut down. People are terrible when it comes to doing the right thing – our minds and our bodies play tricks on each other and tend to screw each other over. Which is why, in order to create a habit, you need to acknowledge that it’s impossible to overcome those urges by sheer willpower alone, and to use systems to facilitate your habit formation. I personally use two types of systems:
1. Automatic systems
These are the best kinds of systems because they eliminate the need for you to use any sort of “willpower”. Essentially, you’re automating your habit and outsourcing it to someone else to do it for you. Want to cultivate the habit of saving? Using “willpower” to cut down on spending every month never works because if you have money sitting there, you’re going to find an excuse to spend it. Instead, set up automatic transfers to a separate bank account and voila! You’ve just instantly cultivated a habit of saving.
Other kinds of automatic systems include setting your computer to ban you from certain time-wasting sites during certain times of the day, or setting up automatic bill payment so you’ll never get hit with overdraft fees or hefty interest rates on your credit cards.
2. Accountability systems
These systems essentially hold you accountable for keeping your habits. You could use sites like Fitocracy or Mint.com to track your fitness and expenditure respectively, but you don’t always have to rely on computerized systems. Sometimes an old-fashioned checklist / journal helps as well. Want to start a habit of running at least once a week? Write down the date, time, and distance you ran after every session. Then at the end of the month, look back and see how well you’ve done. At the beginning of every month, decide how you’re going to reward yourself if you stuck to your habits, and then go celebrate and enjoy yourself if you actually do. You deserve it.
One more thing – don’t be too ambitious in trying to form too many habits at one go. It’s better to start by forming 1 habit a month, and by the end of the year you’ll have 12 habits – essentially a major personal overhaul. Good luck!