Make Habits, Not Resolutions

TLDR: Priorities + Two Types of Goals = Change

Make Habits, Not Resolutions

Another year over. And a new one just begun.

Ah birthdays and new years, twice a year when even the most complacent among us feel that urge to reflect on life and dream of something better. Millions of people around the world are making resolutions today for how they want to change in the new year.

Lose 30 pounds. Get that promotion. Learn to play an instrument. Pay off the loan. Break free from addiction. Find a romantic partner. Run a marathon. Start a new career. And so on. These are fine ambitions, but in isolation, they are lousy goals. I’ve come to believe that if we want to change, we should make habits, not resolutions.

Maintain The Good

Before we focus on how to change, let’s take a moment to appreciate what we have, all of those good parts of our lives that we take for granted. Many things we think of as just normal are the very things that other people are desperately seeking.

For example, how often do you stop and remember to be thankful for your health? Mostly when you’ve been sick, right? Aside: if you want to be better at appreciating your many good fortunes, you may find value in the Stoic practice of negative visualization.

Taking stock of the good parts of life is not merely a pleasant exercise in mindfulness. It’s essential if we’re to set accurate priorities for where to focus attention in the new year. When we think about change, we often forget that we also want to maintain all of the good parts; this reality must be reflected in our planning.

Prioritize What Matters

I don’t believe in ego depletion: the common myth that willpower is finite and can get used up. I think motivation and accomplishment often form a virtuous cycle that can generate more willpower and energy than you put in. However, time is finite, and attention is absolutely a limited resource. You can only focus on a few ideas at once.

This is why having a full picture of your priorities is so vital. Prioritizing change fundamentally means saying no to some part of your current life.

Think of something you want to accomplish this year. Let’s say you want to run a half marathon. Training for that will take hours every week. What are you going to deprioritize to accomplish that? What are you going to say no to?

  • Is training more important than spending any free time with family? No. Is it more important than family time sometimes, in some contexts? Maybe yes. Maybe no.
  • Is training more important than ever going out with friends? No. Is it more important than drinking with friends multiple times a week? Probably, up to you.
  • Is training more important than watching Law & Order or Love It or List It reruns you’ve already seen a hundred times? Well, is it, Al? No comment. I feel judged.

And so on. It’s not enough to decide something is important. What is it more important than? You must decide where it falls in your list of priorities, and critically, your priorities must include what good things you want to maintain.

To reiterate, deciding to change your life fundamentally means giving up some part of your life as you currently know it.

Two Types of Goals

Okay, so you’ve decided you want to make a change, and you’ve decided where its priority ranks. What next?

Achieving change requires understanding how to set effective goals. People often talk about SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound), and I agree those criteria are valuable. They are necessary but not sufficient.

To be effective, a single goal will never suffice; we must translate our desire to change into both product goals and process goals. Let’s return to our example resolution.

“I will run a half-marathon in 2020.” This is a product goal.

It’s an outcome you want to effect. It is valuable for visualizing how the result will change your life, reflecting on why it matters, and determining where it falls in your priorities. Having a clearly articulated end goal can also help you share the journey with a support network and even inspire change in others.

However, product goals do not help you change incrementally, because they offer no incremental sense of accomplishment. They are not actions you can choose to take. They are results you must work towards day after day, usually seeing no immediate change.

To achieve them, you also need smaller steps, achievable goals you can focus on.

“I will walk or run for at least 15 minutes every day.” This is a process goal.

It’s an action you can choose to take and hopefully complete regularly. Completing it helps build momentum to continue progressing towards your product goal. Some people refer to this idea as creating a “goals system” to support achieving a goal.

Process goals are actions that become habits. Make them as small as you need to accomplish them consistently. Consistent progress is the ultimate motivation with any long-term change. If the product goal is the destination, the process goals represent the journey.

Winning The Lottery Won’t Make You Happy

One final piece of advice is to remember that, once our basic needs are met, we all experience hedonic adaptation, which is just a fancy way of saying that we rapidly adjust to changes in our life, good and bad, and return to a happiness set point.

If you accomplish that big, audacious goal you’re dreaming of right now, you will be proud and you will be happier. For a while. Then it will gradually just feel normal, and you won’t feel happier than you were before.

As you set your goals for the new year, consider how to connect them to deeper, permanent personality drives, and consider investigating practices like meditation and mindfulness, which can give you mental tools to reset your emotional baselines.

This is another reason why process goals are so important. When you start achieving your process goals and building the good habits, you immediately start living the life you want. You’re not betting your happiness on some future accomplishment which may or may not happen.

Simple, Not Easy

A big, scary goal can be made approachable with a simple formula:

  • Inventory the good parts of your life that you want to maintain.
  • Identify the product goal, the outcome you want to achieve.
  • Figure out where that goal fits in your overall life priorities, namely what you’ll cut to make room for it.
  • Identify small process goals, i.e., habits, you can start building every day to gain momentum towards achieving the goal.

All that said, there’s really only one thing you have to do: Keep Trying.

Lasting change is hard. It’s not complicated, but it is incredibly hard. All of this talk of priorities and different types of goals and whatever is mainly to trick our primitive, pleasure-seeking lizard brains into keep doing hard, unpleasant things. Small goals tied into deep priorities help us stay motivated and get back on track more quickly when we fall off.

So let’s get out there and be bold this year. This great big thing that you’ve been dreaming of for so long can begin this year with a single decision.

Happy New Year! ♫ Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

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