‘New Year, New Me’ has been a recurring slogan for each new year for this last decade, but it is a strange sentiment that we feel that the opening of a new year will allow us some new freedom or power to change ourselves. Why are we waiting for the new year and why not any time in March or October? Is it that we feel that there’s a certain magic about the day? I think this arbitrary designation of a special day for monumental change could be described as Cinderella syndrome; a great change to ourselves and our circumstances once the clock strikes twelve. For the sake of honesty, I must admit that I’m a sucker for the Cinderella magic of December the 31st, but for all the magic in the world, I don’t think it’s really working.
In recent years there has a been a large amount of content in books, academic journals and other media noting the importance of habits; smaller, regular actions that contribute to a large change. This has been shown to actualise a real and more enduring change than our fairy godmother or her more modern counterpart, sheer force of will. They suggest a toolkit of ideas with a touch of neuroscience, a dash of behavioural economics, and a heap of ancient philosophy. The rules for these tools are that they must be achievable, they must be actionable in the here and now, and they must be clear and measurable. With the toolkit and these rules, it is likelier that through the smaller steps of regular habits, we can reach more of our goals. Let us begin by taking a look inside the toolkit and it’s a toolkit because you might find that some of these work for you and others might not.
For all the magic in the world, I don’t think it’s really working.
The first set of tools are those of mindset; it might seem obvious that mindset is essential, you cannot change if you are unwilling or if you believe change is impossible but it is more than that: sometimes even our positive thinking set us up for failure and frustration. So begin with this: what is within your control and what is not within your control? The rationale behind this is that sometimes our goals might require a lot of practice or might solely down to us. In terms of our habits, it can be prudent to measure what we can input rather than the desired output. For instance, it a possible but difficult goal in 2020 to run a marathon, it can be an arduous slog until you reach that goal. By measuring the input as goals, such as aiming to run for a specific time per week you can make that slog mentally lighter. Likewise, an output goal of saving a specific amount, doesn’t take into account what might happen over the year but setting a goal to spend less or ensure a certain percentage to put away per month is within the realm of your control.
Another tool of mindset is about who you consider yourself to be. Habits expert, James Clear has written that in order to ensure the persistence of a habit it needs to be a part of your identity and in enacting that habit, it is like casting a vote for that identity. As an example, you might want to begin reading more but find that many times during the week you just don’t have time to read. Clear would say that a small vote of reading a paragraph or page before bed regularly is more important that reading a great tome one Saturday.
Our second set of tools is how we plan our time. The scheduling and setting a time for a habit can be powerful as it allows an assurance of time to carry out the habit and a buffer against distraction or disruption. Timing is also useful for applying deadlines, if you must have goals in terms of output. Plotting your time to breakdown a goal into smaller incremental habits takes off the cognitive strain that might push you to resist reaching that goal, such as writing an article might be daunting but writing a 100 words a day can make the task seem menial. Incremental steps over a long period of time can lead to success on grand goals.
Mindset is essential, you cannot change if you are unwilling.
The final set of tools in today’s toolkit is using your environment. Wanting to get into a habit of running is a good goal but the application of it can be tricky. Our brains have evolved to follow the path of least resistance and if can treat simple things like finding our kit, getting dressed, finding your headphones as exhausting hurdles. But in using our environment to our advantage; preparing things beforehand and making it visible or with an alarm can prime us to carrying out the desired habit. The reverse is true too; if you don’t want to snack on cookies, don’t leave them on the countertop, make them harder to reach.
These are only a few sets of tools that we can use and apply in 2020, they may not be the most glamorous of tools but they can serve and help us just as much as any fairy godmother.
Bippity boppity boo.