It happens every year on January 1st. We join the ranks of the New Year’s Resolutioners who sign up at a gym, vow to stop eating sweets, promise to pay our bills on time, and cross our hearts that we’ll never procrastinate again. Then by February 20th, the gyms are back to their usual patronage, our freezers are full of Ben and Jerry’s, late notices start arriving, and we find ourselves staying up late the night before an assignment is due.
New Year’s Resolutions are frequently doomed to fail because nothing changes when the calendar rolls from one year to the next. For our external actions to change, something must first change about ourselves. Too often we try to change from the outside in: we try to change our actions and hope that will change who we are. Instead, we need to focus on changing who we are, and our actions will naturally follow.
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”– Epictetus
This year why not try something new. Rather than thinking about what actions you want to change, think, instead, about what you want to accomplish and who you will need to be to accomplish it. For example, rather than planning to give up ice cream, if your goal is to be healthier, consider how you can become a person who doesn’t need sugary treats to feel happy. Rather than planning to exercise five times a week, if your goal is to be fit, consider how you can become a person who loves to be active more than they love to do what is easy. Instead of promising to work hard and not surf social media, if your goal is more to be more productive, think about how you can be a person of discipline who can do what needs to be done even when it’s boring. You get the idea.
Once you have decided who you want to be, the next question is how you can become it.
Welcome to your 2021 quest, should you choose to accept it!
Let’s take one example of what this might look like. Since losing weight is the most common resolution made each year, we’ll consider that. If the usual heartfelt but short-lived resolutions worked, then we wouldn’t find ourselves making the same resolution year after year. If you want to change how you eat or exercise, then you need to do more than just decide to do it. You need to become a person who does it. To become that person you have to look more deeply at why you are engaging in an unhealthy behavior or avoiding a healthy one. There are several big reasons that come into play:
1. Avoidance of negative emotions. We avoid tasks or activities that elicit negative emotions such as boredom, frustration, self-doubt, or inadequacy. Instead, we seek out activities that give us quick hits of dopamine: getting likes on a facebook post, scrolling through twitter, or mindlessly eating sugary foods. To overcome the problem of negative emotions, first, look at the desired activity: going to the gym or avoiding sugar. What emotions does that elicit for you? The emotions are caused by your own thoughts. Identify the thoughts as specifically as possible that are causing the negative emotions. Second, create cognitive distance or space between yourself and your thoughts. With more space, you can better become aware and then manage your thoughts. This is a process known as Stoic mindfulness.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”– Marcus Aurelius
As Aurelius wrote, the negative emotions of feeling self-pity or deprivation, frustration, fear that you will fail, and all the other distressing feelings are a result of our own thoughts or estimations. That is great news, because we can change our thoughts. Once you become aware of maladaptive thought patterns, consider what emotions you would want to feel as you approach the difficult task at hand. For example, I like to feel determination, confidence, optimism, hope, or excitement. Then figure out what thoughts you would need to think to create those emotions. Write those thoughts down and keep them handy. Come back to them frequently and pick them up like tools or weapons that you can use when you need to vanquish the foes of complacency, fear of failure, resignation, pessimism, or self-pity. Some thoughts that may be effective for creating more productive emotions are things like:
- “I can do difficult things”
- “I can create change in my life.”
- “I can work hard.”
- “Hard work pays off.”
- “I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to do the next right thing.”
- “I can make the time I need for the things that are most important.”
- “Isn’t it great that I get to choose how I spend my time!”
- “I’m going to feel really proud of myself for doing this later.”
There is much more to say on this topic, and many more strategies you can use to assess and manage your thoughts. If you are interested in a much deeper dive, see the Robertson article on Stoic Philosophy, and particularly the middle section on “What did the Stoics do?” for 17 practical cognitive strategies to change how you think.
2. Habits. We tend to do things we’ve always done in the ways we’ve always done them. Change is difficult. To create new habits, consider the habit loop of cue, craving, response, and reward. Find the cues that trigger the negative behavior. Remove the cues as much as possible. Then consider how you can create new cues for the desired behavior. Maybe that’s putting your gym clothes out each night or setting calendar reminders for when you will exercise. Pre-plan your meals so that you pre-decide what you will eat rather than dropping back into the habit of staring into the fridge mindlessly.
If there are cues that you can’t change, then plan ahead what your response will be when you encounter them. For example, the donuts in the break room may be a usual cue for you to scarf a donut before you even register that you are doing it. Instead, have a plan for how you will create a new response to that old cue of seeing the Krispy Kreme box. The new response may be to get a coffee or water, stretch, talk with a friend, do 30 seconds of mindful breathing, remind yourself of your long-term goals, ask yourself what your body really needs, ask Siri to tell you a joke (most of them are so bad you will find yourself distracted from the donuts and pondering just how bad the jokes are).
Finally, create your own rewards. Instead of rewarding yourself with sugar or mindless entertainment, create mental positive reinforcements that reward the behavior and the thought patterns that you want. This may mean congratulating yourself, noticing you did something well, or metaphorically patting yourself on the back. People who use more positive self-talk tend to be more adaptive learners and create positive changes when they do fail, rather than wallow in self-pity and resignation. For much more on habits, see my last post all about habits and willpower, or this podcast episode.
3. Social norms. It’s so common that it’s cliché: we tell ourselves we shouldn’t eat the cookies in the very moment our hand lifts them to our mouths. As a society, we expect things to be easy, we dislike the idea of requiring discipline, we tend to give up or avoid activities when we feel negative emotions about them. Successfully accomplishing your quest to become the person you want to be this year will be easier if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals who will encourage you, rather than sabotage your efforts. Find those people. Spend (socially distanced, 6-feet-apart) time with them. Share your thoughts, failures, and successes. Keep each other accountable. In their book Influencer: The Power to change anything, the authors discuss the idea of 200% accountability. This means you are 100% responsible for yourself and 100% responsible for someone else. Find someone who is willing to help your personal change management quest, and stay 200% responsible for each other.
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”– Epictetus
Enjoy the quest to change one characteristic of yourself this year. Be ready for frequent failures and stumbles. Prepare for it to be harder than you think. Most importantly, approach it with a sense of humor. As Epictetus wrote:
“He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at.”– Epictetus
Resources and References:
- Grenny J, Patterson K, Maxfield D, McMillan R, Switzler A. Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. McGraw-Hill Education; 2013.
- Dweck CS. Mindset : The New Psychology of Success. Random House; 2006.
- Clear J. Atomic Habits : Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results : An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Random House; 2018.
- Robertson D, Codd T. Stoic Philosophy as a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Behav Ther. 2019;42(2). https://medium.com/stoicism-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/stoic-philosophy-as-a-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-597fbeba786a
- Orman, R and Cheney R, Stimulus Podcast, The Art of Breathing
- Orman, R and Shenvi, C, Stimulus Podcast, Understanding Willpower and Habits