Beyond Resolutions – to Action

Tis the season for resolutions, for big, sweeping goals worthy of a year-long timeline. And that is part of the problem. Few people have ever planned a year-long project, even if they have made resolutions all their lives. Another problem is that people often make resolutions that are about habits. Many of us can just gut it out if we have to get a specific thing done in a particular time frame, but creating habits – or worse, breaking them – is about more than just determination.

Many people frame habit-focused resolutions as if they are single-destination goals. Weight loss is the perfect example. Losing weight may be treated as a black box (“I will lose 30 pounds”), without much thought to why or how. Anyone who does go to the gym sees this type of Resolution Maker for a few weeks every January, by which point there’s a crisis at home or work, or they become injured, or worse they find their weight has plateaued or even risen, and they lose momentum and stop showing up.

And then there is the foundational problem: framing a goal without really exploring the motivation. Do I lose 30 pounds because I want to fit into those pants I love? Because my doctor told me my cholesterol is too high? Or because I believe that at my height I should have a specific weight? Sometimes we know the “real reason” and paper it over with one that is easier to speak aloud, which makes it even harder to reach our goals.

This is exactly the battle that knowing is half of. Some goals are worth examining and discarding – I’d place “I should weigh a specific number of pounds” in that category, not least because your weight can fluctuate by a surprisingly large amount through normal activity during the day. Others are worth understanding so that you can see your success – taking measurements on your path to those pants, or doing follow-up lab tests.

And then there’s the challenging part: devising a plan to reach the goal. Most of us have learned that you should break up big tasks into smaller, manageable parts, but that’s not always as easy as it seems, and breaking the big task up is just another item on the to-do list. Maybe tomorrow. Rather than wait for motivation to strike, maybe it’s time to start even smaller than that.

BJ Fogg runs the Persuasive Technology lab at Stanford University. He’s been pioneering a habit-changing methodology that he calls Tiny Habits. The basic point is that you can be highly motivated but still not change your behavior, because it’s hard. It may not even be that big a deal, but it’s big enough, and that’s OK.

With Tiny Habits, he encourages people to choose very small actions that they’d like to make habitual, things that can be accomplished in less than 30 seconds, and simply do them for 5 days. He also asks you to anchor your new habit to something you already do. “When I get up in the morning, I’ll stretch for 30 seconds.” He has an accountability option at his site, too – join, and for 5 days, you’ll receive a daily email simply asking whether you performed your tiny habits.

It takes longer than 5 days to fully embrace a new habit, especially if it’s very new, but 5 days is long enough to get a gut check on what’s working and what isn’t. Fogg invites you to think about what worked and what didn’t, and to revise accordingly.

This is what makes advice like “take the stairs instead of the elevator” or “park at the furthest spot in the parking lot” work well for people. But Fogg makes it even easier. His small approach reminds us that it’s not absolute – we choose a consistent, daily anchor to help cue us to practice the new habit, but that may be one opportunity of several to take a specific action. So we start by taking the stairs only when we get to the office in the morning. And he reminds us that it’s OK to change course, which opens the door not only to finding a better way but to expanding our effort or commitment as we become able to do so.

Have you used Tiny Habits, or another “start small” approach to make a change? How did it go?

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