You don’t need another article about habits.
I started writing that very thing. Until I quickly realized there’s no point. You don’t need it.
If you want to start a new habit, pick up a book by James Clear, BJ Fogg, or Charles Duhigg. They’re all good. And they all have pretty much the same message.
Start small. Set your environment up to support you. And do something every day.
There’s more to it than that. The books are a little longer. And they’re full of inspiring stories and research to back it all up.
But that’s essentially what they all boil down to.
You’re more likely to do something small than something big. Prompts and a supportive environment keep you moving forward. And momentum becomes its own motivation.
It’s not complicated.
And yet, we don’t do it. Regardless of the energy when we start, most of our exercise commitments and meditation promises will be cast aside by February.
Despite all the new information on habits, motivation, and psychology, as well as the many lessons we’ve learned over the years — it doesn’t move the needle on this statistic. When I was a kid, no one kept their resolutions. And thirty years later, we’re going through the same struggle.
Maybe it’s time to do something different.
Stop Looking for Hacks
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” — Colin Powell
I recently saw an article that promised a solution. It offered a “simple, science-backed trick” that “cracked the code” for New Year’s Resolutions.
Their secret? Framing your resolution in a positive light instead of a negative one. Apparently, rewording your resolution from “stop eating badly” to “start eating healthy” will result in success.
Except when you read farther, the study that “cracked the code” showed a 13% improvement with this practice.
Every little bit helps. But aligning a 13% gain to some guarantee of success seems like a stretch.
Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if there were some secret out there, waiting to be uncovered by a social psychologist and a bunch of undergraduate guinea pigs who are short on cash. But given the decades of dismal performance, it seems unlikely.
Instead, we struggle because it’s difficult. Change is hard. It requires sacrifice. And unless we’re willing to make that trade-off, there’s little chance of success.
The problem isn’t that we don’t have the right habit manifesto in hand. It’s because we’re choosing the wrong resolutions in the first place. They may seem important in the moment. But motivation is fleeting, and when we’re confronted with the sacrifices that go with them, they quickly fall apart.
We imagine the benefit without the costs of achieving it. When these costs inevitably enter the equation, the resolution doesn’t look nearly as appetizing.
For instance, I may want six-pack abs (and I do), but not enough to sacrifice going out for ice cream with my kids. I may want to broaden my perspectives, but not at the cost of reading Fox News every day. All of our failed resolutions seem to fit this category — important in the abstract, yet not worth it in reality.
What will be Worth the Sacrifice?
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” — Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Despite all of the advancements we’ve made since Seneca wrote those words two millennia ago, we share this same struggle. As he’d further say,
“Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
It’s this concern that drives us towards resolutions and new habits in the first place. We want to live better. We want to make the best use of our lives.
How is different for everyone. There’s no universal standard. We all have different priorities. We all have different values that define what we’re willing to sacrifice in pursuit of it. As Nietzche put it, “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.”
There is, however, one consistency. Seneca offers a simple, yet far from easy, solution:
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
A simple reminder that we all know, yet somehow easily forget. And one that we rarely put into practice. What are you putting off?
We all hope that 2021 will bring an end to the pandemic and let us move forward with some new beginnings. But there’s no reason not to focus on what we can control right now. What are you putting off? As another Stoic philosopher, Epictetus asked, “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”
Where are you still planning, or waiting on some guarantee of success, before taking on that aspiration that will make a real difference in your life?
Positive habits are great. But not if we focus on those as a means of distracting ourselves from these major life challenges. By building more routine into each day, we lull ourselves into passivity, coast through each day, and distract ourselves from actually living.
Instead of filling your day with new habits, just focus on that one question. What are you putting off? Chances are, it’s something that once you start, will justify the sacrifice that comes with it.
No one’s saying that you need to conquer the world in 2021, but there’s no better time to focus on becoming the person you want to be. There’s no better time to begin doing the great things you know you’re capable of — and hopefully a few that you didn’t. In the wise words of Neil Gaiman,
“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”
Happy New Year. Let’s go.