We’re four weeks into 2019, and as we see every year, this is around the time those well-intentioned (if slightly ambitious) New Year’s resolutions start to fall by the wayside. The most common New Year’s resolutions are around health (losing weight, getting into shape) and money(paying off debt, starting to save).
On average, 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February, which means it’s likely that many of us have given up a New Year’s resolution within three months. I’ve definitely found myself eating more processed sugar than I’d planned to, and while I’ve made the conscious decision to avoid New Year’s resolutions (as I prefer to rewire a habit as soon as I realize it’s bugging me), I know that sustaining a habit at any time of year can create the pathway to lifelong changes.
Resist referring to “big” changes
The problem with most decisions to make a lifestyle change by setting a goal (or New Year’s resolution) is that we decide in a vacuum. It’s usually when we’re feeling an extreme emotion: joy at the thought of a new beginning, which makes us commit to nailing this year financially; anger at ourselves for being hungover again, making us vow never to drink again. We feel so good or so bad that we feel compelled to announce it to others, putting further pressure on ourselves.
This impulsive decision is like impulse spending: it feels good in the moment, but can leave you feeling more and more dread as time passes. Without considering the real impact of an impulsive decision, it’s easy to start using the feeling of dread to launch into big action which is unsustainable. If you’ve already set a New Year’s resolution (yes, just one because taking on more than one decreases the chances of anything sticking) and you’d like some practical guidance to stay the course, consider these three questions that have helped me regain focus:
1. What’s the easiest way to start?
We like to take “big” action in the hopes of reaching ‘big’ achievement. We look at people who appear to have had overnight success, but more often than not, it takes those people years if not decades to achieve anything worth a good headline. Forget the idea of ‘overnight’ anything and start getting clear on doing something 1% better than yesterday. This is an idea that James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) first introduced to me and it’s been a rule that’s served me for nearly a decade, “the 1 Percent Rule states that over time the majority of the rewards in a given field will accumulate to the people, teams, and organizations that maintain a 1 percent advantage over the alternatives.” An easy step is to commit to this new action for just two minutes today.
If you’re trying to pay off debt in the thousands, consider what small action you can take today and then consider what you can do tomorrow, and so on. For example, today you could spend two minutes adding up exactly how much debt you have. Tomorrow, you could increase the amount you’re paying off each month by $5. The day after tomorrow, you could look up a new recipe and plan to make more of it to take to work for lunch the next day, so that you can avoid buying an expensive lunch out. These small, consistent habits are what help us shift our lifestyles in a way that’s sustainable and tangible.
2. How will I implement it?
It’s great to have a list of small actions or tasks for improving your situation, but without setting aside the time and environment, it can be easy for those small tasks to stop after a few days especially when we’re less motivated. The key is not to rely on motivation by putting together an implementation plan. James Clear suggests creating implementation intentions which clearly outline when and how you’ll carry out a task. Here are some examples:
- After breakfast on Saturday, I will get out all of my credit card statements and calculate all of my debt for at least 2 minutes.
- On Wednesday, I will do a gentle cardio workout for 2 minutes when I get home from work.
By getting clear on when and how long you will do a task, you start to walk through the action in your mind and increase your mindfulness. You can also increase the likeliness you’ll do something if you piggyback off of an existing habit e.g. brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, getting home from work.
3. What happens when…?
Temptation is all around us. With the digital age, we’re more distracted than ever by tasks that give us immediate gratification, e.g. scrolling through Instagram. Similar to the implementation intention, it’s important to acknowledge and plan for those moments when we’re tempted away from those tasks that may be painful to do in the short term, but will benefit us in the long run. James Clear suggests a simple template of what you’ll do, if your plans don’t go to plan, using, “If…, then …”:
- If I don’t make my lunch to take to work, I’ll pick up a few items from the store to put together a simple lunch e.g. hummus, veggies, and pita
- If I feel tired after work, I’ll wake up 5 minutes earlier the next day to do some stretching before work.
Making a decision to improve your life, whether it’s for better health or a better financial situation, is the first step. Getting around to doing those things can feel like up an uphill struggle, but having clarity and a contingency plan will help us form sustainable habits for a lifetime.
Maureen writes on personal finance for millennials. In 2017, she released her first book: Your Money, Your 20s. Since releasing her book, she has written several online courses on money management and investing. She is a big fan of index funds and started investing in the stock market aged 22. Since then she has invested in peer-to-peer lending, renewable energy, and crowdcube businesses. You can read more of her work at The Life-Life Balance.
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