Resolutions and Habits.
Written by: Meg Sharp, Wellbeing Consultant, Cambridge Group of Clubs
How’s that resolution treating you?
It’s been just over three months since we toasted the beginning of 2022. Whether you made a New Year’s resolution or not, at some point in our lives we all resolve to make a change. We all decide we want a different, better something. But unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, those resolutions sometimes end in disappointment and frustration.
It doesn’t need to be that way.
What is a resolution after all? An intent, a promise to ourselves to make a change and stick with it. Put a different way, it’s the creation of and solidifying of one or more new habits.
If the idea of a “resolution” seems bolder and more transformational that a “habit” you could be right. Typically, people’s resolutions can be pretty bold and lofty. Which is exciting right? At first anyhow. But the very nature of audacious goals can sometimes set people up for failure, as the scope of behavioural change required in order to achieve that goal can be too much to be effectively sustained over the long term.
Important note – lofty goals can still be amazing things. Hold that thought so I can come back to it in a few minutes.
First, an exploration of habits:
Habits are small actions you make every day. Ultimately, you are an accumulation of your habits. How healthy, in or out of shape, well read, clean and tidy, productive you are is a result of your habits. Habits start small. Once the habit is in place, there are ample opportunities to improve it and up your game. After a few months or years, it may have morphed into something wonderfully, powerfully, healthfully unrecognizable relative to the first tiny, but foundational, first step. As you slowly and surely start to transform one habit at a time, you can transform your life.
This is not nearly as sexy as a big, hairy, audacious resolution. But for most of us, it’s how transformation actually works.
Wait. The audacious resolution still can have a place: Dreams – big, bold dreams – are exciting and inspiring. They encourage us to persevere in the face of setbacks and discomfort. They motivate us to rally all kinds of energy, support, and resources. They give us HOPE.
So, resolve. And paint that goal so big and bright you can TASTE the finish line.
And then think about the first step you need to take. The first habit you need to tweak, adjust, or adopt. The one you need to embrace in order to push a different one out of the picture. Then – maybe a week or two later – add another one… and improve a little on the first… and shuffle a different one out of way. And every day, vote for the new habits, as often as you possibly can. Think: which choice gets me closer to my dream? Habit A or Habit E? Every vote for the new goals, every improvement of the new goals push you a little closer to the finish line. Elections aren’t typically won by landslides. You simply need to vote more often for the healthier habits in favour of the less desirable ones. Friday night wine, blue cheese, chocolate cake, AND too little sleep? No problem. Just vote for different actions and decisions on Monday and Tuesday…
While the resolution can be big and bold, it’s far better if the habits are small and easy. Habits are far more likely to stick if there’s a little friction as possible. That is, make sure the habit is within your abilities. Something you can do and feel at least a little proficiency and with minimal disruptions and discomfort. At least at first. (Remember you can always “jack-up” the habit later!)
Change your environment to support the habit: Make your running shoes visible. Set up your spin bike close to the TV. Buy fresh fruits and vegetables and put them on a shelf in the fridge where they are visible.
Measure your progress if you can. Minutes of reading per week. Glasses of water per week. Number of workouts – of ANY duration – per week. Minutes of mindfulness per week… This will make you recognize the progress you are making. The brain loves that.
Think of habits like trees: at the beginning – the new, healthy habit is like a seedling. It needs to be nurtured, protected, constantly watered, and maybe even talked to while the roots take. Conversely an old, bad habit can be like a gnarly old oak tree. Pulling that sucker out roots and all is not an overnight undertaking.
Count the small stuff. If your goal is to exercise 20 minutes 3 times a week, but you only do 12, 14, and 6 minutes – it ALL counts. Your brain responds far better to positive reinforcement. (Again, remember, you can always improve on a habit once it’s there!)
Wherever possible, plan for your habit including back up plans in case of challenges. For example, book in your calendar to exercise for 20 minutes every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 7:30am. Make sure you have the equipment and space set up to facilitate this. Be ready with a contingency plan: earmark 3 other opportunities in your week where you can do at least a few minutes of something. If after a month, you are missing more than doing – don’t give up, reassess. Perhaps 7:30am is not the right time?
Try pairing your new habit with an existing habit to facilitate a simple regular trigger that ultimately ensures the new habit gets fully engrained. Check below for a real-life example.
James Clear has a great analogy representing the latent power of the accumulation of good habits: Imagine an ice cube in a room that is 25 degrees. Every so often you increase the room temperature by 1 degree. 26, 27, 28 degrees… nothing happens. 28, 30, 31 degrees… nothing happens. 32 degrees. Seemingly an insignificant increase from the previous adjustment, yet – seemingly – all of a sudden, the ice cube begins to melt. Giving up on a great habit within a few days or weeks because you don’t see any tangible results is like giving up on melting an ice cube just as the room hits 31 degrees: YOU MISSED THE TRANSFORMATION BY ONE DEGREE!!!
Little steps. Little commitments. Celebrate the small wins. Stay the course. Ultimately things are going to be amazing.
Real-life example: I have a dear friend who is an incredibly busy full-time pediatrician and mother of two. She wanted to develop more strength – but was having trouble fitting workouts into her schedule. She is a tea drinker – and heats her tea several times throughout her work day. I gave her a few different pairs of exercise she would do in the clinic kitchen for the 90 seconds her tea was reheating several times a day, every day. It wasn’t much to begin with – but these little bouts made her feel really good about her commitment to strength training. She started to shift her identity from “someone who doesn’t workout” to someone who is training throughout her day. (Important note: the brain doesn’t care too much how much you do. It really notices that you’re doing something on a regular basis). Within a few weeks she was repeating the exercises while her smoothie blended in the morning. Then she added them in before and after she walked her 2 dogs every day. Then she and her daughter started doing longer sessions after dinner in the evenings… She’s now made time to do a full body routine for 45 minutes on the weekends, and on the day she works remotely. Incidentally she still does her “exercise snacks” in the clinic kitchen. And has motivated many of her coworkers to do the same.