New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing. I guess, I don’t really understand how you avoid thinking about your behavior on all the other days of the year. Admittedly, I am a depressed, low self-esteem worrier, but honestly are there people who do not routinely look back at what they have done or forward to what they wish they could do? Are there days when you are supposed to shun self-reflection? If so, when are those blackout dates, and could someone please tell me how to refrain from questioning and berating myself on those carefree days?
Seriously, though, I want to stress that I am not criticizing people who have already determined that the first day of the year is the best time for self-improvement. On New Year’s day, if you promised yourself in 2014 you would eat a healthy diet, work out more regularly, get sober, or no longer post indiscreet selfies on the internet, you should be applauded for taking steps to better your life. Those are all admirable goals. However, I would just like to say that I think, in general, January first is one of the least conducive times for changing bad habits.
For starters, it is always an awful idea to put all of your expectations into a single day or even a couple of weeks. And, it’s not just any day; it is the single most conspicuous day or few weeks of the year. People are watching to see whether you can follow through on your resolution at these times. That is far too much pressure.
Furthermore, how could anyone—living in this part of the world—think that the month of January is a favorable time for most of the lifestyle adjustments listed above? January has some of the shortest, darkest, coldest, and least temperate days of the entire year. It also happens to be the month that follows the handful of “holidays” that tend to be the most pressured and rife with family expectations and disappointments.
In other words, January is one of the most stressful and challenging times for anyone to eat well, exercise more, drink less, and stay offline. Striving to correct your imperfections and work hardest on your vices, at a time when everyone is struggling, seems a little like throwing a kid, who is afraid of swimming, into the ocean when there is a strong undertow.
When and how should you work on changing yourself or your habits? The short answers are whenever you want and it depends.
According to psychologist Jeremy Dean, the time it takes to break an old habit or start a new one depends largely on which habits need changing. In one study, on average, “it took 66 days until a habit was formed.” However, the bad news is “There was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do.” Not surprisingly, for example, training yourself to drink a glass of water in the morning was far easier than forcing yourself to do 50 sit-ups. Many people in this study accomplished the former goal in only 20 days, but the latter goal was still not a habit for many after 84 days.
The good news is these studies prove that some habits are changeable in only a matter of days. Moreover, as psychologist Daniel Gilbert suggests, trying to gain greater control over your life is not only a normal part of being human, it also can improve your mood. Gilbert’s most exciting finding may be that even the “illusion of control…seems to confer many of the psychological benefits of genuine control.”* He states that some researchers have concluded that regardless of whether your sense of control over a situation is real or imagined, the benefit to your mental health is noticeable.
For more pointed and specific advice on changing habits, you might try reading New York Times reporter Daniel Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. Duhigg says that all habits (good or bad) conform to the same pattern. There is a three step loop that we experience every time we practice any habitual behavior. First, there is a cue (a trigger), followed by a routine (the actual behavior), and then a reward. Duhigg argues behaviors turn into habits because “The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.” “To change a habit,” Duhigg proposes, “you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” However, he acknowledges that, “Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors.”
Obviously, I am probably not a good source for what works when you are really determined to make a fresh start. For this reason, I cannot in good faith offer anyone any advice. Therefore, I will not try to tell you how to do anything. Instead, I will report some of the other seemingly pertinent words of wisdom that I came across over the course of 2013.
- Make to do lists no longer than a Post-It note with specific, actionable, baby-step goals.
- One of the best ways to combat negative distractions is positive distractions.
- The most recent research shows that successful change requires a substantial dose of experiential learning (i.e., mistakes and failures are part of the process).
- Talent or innate skills are only a tiny percentage of success; consistent, unglamorous work is what counts.
- Change happens when we become aware of what we are, not when we try to become what we are not.
Some people may have very little difficulty sticking to and achieving their New Year’s resolutions. If that has not been your experience, though, I hope you will remember that modifying your behavior at the start of a new calendar year is not the only way to affect change in your life. As far as I know, neither Dean, nor Gilbert, nor Duhigg seem to think that the most important factors in changing your habits have anything to do with New Year’s resolutions.
January first is actually a fairly arbitrary, unusually lousy time for transitioning to new ways of living. April 3rd, June 12th, or September 22nd are just a few of the 364 other possible dates when you also might be successful in forming new habits. From what I can tell, if you decide to transform some aspect of yourself, becoming self-aware about your triggers, believing in the value of a proposed change, having a willingness to work and fail at it, and your sense of your ability to control the outcome, all matter far more than when you decide to go for it.
But wait, there’s more:
(Unfortunately, I am horrible about always citing my sources when I am quickly scribbling down ideas on whatever paper is within my immediate reach. This means, I don’t always know who said which thing; and when I do know whose words I liked, I often can’t remember where I recorded them. Perhaps, my New Year’s resolution should be about becoming an organized notetaker. Anyway, to give some of the writers some of the credit they deserve, I have tried to compensate for my incompetence by including an appendix of sorts below. In it, you will find additional, directly and tangentially relevant statements and a list en masse of all of the sources that I can verify. I apologize to any academics out there who are shuddering in horror as they read this.)
- Sleep is more important than food.
- Doing nothing for some short period everyday is just as necessary as all those things on your to do lists.
- By doing a little everyday, you can get a lot accomplished.
- Successful multi-tasking has been scientifically proven to be virtually impossible.
- Practicing focused attention boosts our concentration, and helps with stress, anxiety, and addictive behaviors.
- People don’t notice your mistakes as much as you think they do.
Less Relevant but not unrelated
- Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.
- A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.
- There are no meaningful guarantees.
- Fixed selfhood is a myth.
(Please note, I would not necessarily endorse all of the following sources, but clearly I found parts of them useful. Also, I swear I don’t only read these types of self-helpy materials. However, if you need to make a quick list of short, easily digestible advice, many of the sources below work rather well.)
- Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection.
- Dean, Jeremy. Making Habits, Breaking Habits.
- Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit.
- Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness.
- Glei, Jocelyn K., ed. Manage Your Day-To-Day.
- Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow.
- Krznaric, Roman. How to Find Fulfilling Work.
- Perry, Philippa. How to Stay Sane.
- Ruben, Gretchen. The Happiness Project.
- Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity.
Footnote (from paragraph #7)
*I am sorry to say that this does not apply to the clinically depressed who, Gilbert notes, “seem generally immune to this illusion.” I suppose our only consolation is that the reason we cannot benefit from those delusions is we tend to be more capable of estimating “accurately the degree to which [we] can control events” (yeah, yet another perk for the mentally ill).