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Make a Record Not a Resolution
Why New Year's resolutions always fail and how to make sustainable changes.
Hello everyone! We’ve almost arrived at those special few weeks in January where we pretend that we’ve become a whole new person. If you have ever made a New Year’s resolution then you are familiar with failing to keep it up past MLK day. There’s a better way.
ONE FROM THE AGES
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
ONE FROM TODAY
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
— Peter Drucker
ONE FROM US
Why do New Year’s resolutions always fail? It’s not from a lack of hope and initial excitement. But we can only rely on this extra hope and motivation to help us lace up our running shoes the first few times. Many people take their commitment one level further and create a schedule and plan around their new change, yet still fall off after several weeks. Both approaches miss one vital aspect: feedback. We need to measure and record our progress to continually optimize it. As Peter Drucker tells us above, we cannot improve what we do not measure.
The only way to create a change that sticks in your life is to build a system around it. The only way to maintain those systems is to keep an up-to-date account of their effectiveness and your adherence (hint: effectiveness requires adherence). Recording your progress is far more than a tool to help you optimize the technical details of your new habit. Keeping a record is the most potent way to ensure that you actually show up each day to follow your new system. When we record our actions, we inevitably edit our behavior.
I first discovered this phenomenon when I kept a food and workout log to help me gain muscle (a foreign prospect for a long-term runner and triathlete.) I began my training log as a reference guide to record my program’s technical details. However, once logging had grown into an expectation, I began to subtly change what and when I ate and how consistently I trained so that I could create a record that I was proud of. I simply held my goals in my head (gain weight, mostly muscle) and recorded my actions. I gained almost 20 pounds of muscle in six months.
I’ve since used a similar system to build habits for writing, meditation, and waking up earlier. This little trick isn’t a silver bullet, but it does get to the heart of a very basic truth about human nature. When our behavior is recorded, we inevitably change it. When we know that we will have to account for our actions, we edit ourselves in real-time. Recording our actions forces more personal awareness than we normally have. Then, our self-consciousness kicks in to prevent us from any destructive actions that we don’t want our record to include.
I don’t mean to suggest that this process is easy. It might seem like a cheap trick to fool your brain into doing something that it doesn’t want to do. You might think that any good that follows only came from personal vanity. It might also feel like pandering directly to the metric rather than staying true to your intent. These are legitimate criticisms and even partially accurate, but only see the beginning of the story.
Consistency is the most important aspect of building a habit. Any trick that panders directly to adherence, is no trick at all. Further, change comes through action. We do not become a person who instinctively acts in a certain way without acting in that way for a while first. We need to spend a little time in a new outfit before the clothes begin to feel like a natural expression of our style. Behavior patterns are no different. We need to grow comfortable with the decisions, actions, and emotions of new behaviors before they can harden into a habit.
Any discussion of behavior change must come through the framework of the elephant-rider-path analogy. Imagine a person riding an elephant. In short, the rider is the “you” that you consider you (your thinking and reasoning brain). The elephant is your emotions and subconscious. You might think that you are in complete control, but when the elephant wants to deviate from the plan, you have little power to stop it.
We can never sustain a new direction without coercing the elephant onto the right path. Our powerful emotional side is more than happy to continue marching in the direction that it always has unless an equally powerful force entices it to turn. This new force must speak the only language that the elephant understands: emotions. Personal vanity and self-consciousness have a strong pull on all of us. Any “trick” (I prefer “tool”) that helps us sustain positive change can only be positive.
Check out our free ebook for an in-depth examination of the elephant-rider-path framework.
Trick or not, we don’t need to continue our record-keeping forever to make the changes stick. No one wants to record every meal, every habit, and every decision for their entire life. Fortunately, we don’t need to. Change is more about practice and repetition than conscious planning and execution. Author Jerry Sternin says that “it's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting.”
Deciding to change isn’t enough, regardless of how strong our initial excitement feels. When we entice ourselves to act in a new way, by any means necessary, eventually we will become the type of person who acts this way. Author Neil Gaiman put this another way. In this 2012 commencement address to the University of the Arts Philadelphia, he advises that to do something that we’ve never done before, pretend to be the type of person who does it, and then just do what they would do. Eventually, you will be the type of person who has does the thing naturally.
This sounds too simple and silly to be effective, but the force of change comes from our emotional side and emotions always look silly under rational scrutiny. When we log our actions, we exploit a bit of vanity and self-consciousness, speaking directly to the emotional side of our nature. New patterns become habits once our emotional side values the new rewards over the old ones. We come to prefer the little boost of pride that comes from walking past the cookies more than the momentary taste pleasure of eating one. Our new identity is that of person-who-resists-cookies.
I no longer require a food log. I’ve discovered the foods that make me feel good, the portions and timing that help me reach my goals, and the moderation that allows me to have a free and pleasurable relationship with food. My log helped me get here. My log also helps me maintain this pattern, even though I haven’t recorded anything in years.
We don’t alter our identities overnight. We need specific tools to help us try them on. Once we prefer the new version, we no longer need the tricks and tools that got us there.
So, as we enter 2021 and you set your sights on your personal growth, know that this excitement and motivation will fade, likely before you hear from me next in only two weeks. You need tools to hold you to your changes until they soak into who you are.
Happy Resolutions (and any other changes, any time you choose)!
This is our final Stuff of 2020. While it’s been a historic year on many fronts, we are proud of the changes and progress we’ve made at IHD. We are so honored to speak to you today and in the future. Here’s to an amazing 2021.
Life is too short to be normal,
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