Unless you have a great plan of attack, a New Year’s Resolution is about as useful as a flux capacitor on a car that can’t go 88 miles per hour (see what I did there?).
It’s that time of year again, and I want 2018 to be the year you actually accomplish stuff. Getting your first pull-up. Running your first 5k. Learning to play that piano that sits there unused. Taking that first trip overseas. And the way you’re going to do that is by saying no to resolutions.
Yup, the guy who built his life around goals (and wrote an entire book about it!) wants to you stop making resolutions. Why?
Because New Year’s resolutions, as most people think of them, are hollow:
“I’m going to exercise every day.”
“I’m going to start flossing!”
“I’m going to eat better.”
Let’s be honest, we know these things aren’t going to become habit – we declare a random hodge podge of nebulous goals, and then we look back at year’s end and realize we never really got out of the starting gate.
Want to actually get stuff done? You don’t need resolutions.
Here’s exactly what you need instead.
Step 1: Screw Motivation!
“Well I told myself I wanted to run more and eat better, and I was motivated for a few weeks, but then life got busy and it kind of faded away. Oops”
A few months back, I stumbled across a response on Imgur (foul language warning) that perfectly encapsulated why we fail at making changes in our life:
- “I wish I had the willpower to eat healthier.”
- “I’m just not motivated to exercise right now.”
- “I’m just waiting to be inspired for the adventure I want to have.”
Motivation and inspiration can certainly help to get started, but without understanding how our crazy, irrational brains work, we’re doomed to another year of “oh yeah, I forgot I said I was going to do that.” SUCK!
Motivation can get you started, and that’s great! I don’t care what gets you started or how you got here, just that you’re here. Remember, Rule #1 of the Rebellion is “We don’t care where you came from, only where you’re going.” But motivation wanes, and inspiration fades quickly when life kicks in.
If you are going to succeed this year, there are three truths that you NEED to learn immediately before we move onto anything else:
- We are creatures of habit.
- We are products of our environment.
- We are the average of the people we associate most with.
To accomplish things this year, you need to build systems that deliver success. Systems take willpower out of the picture and set you up for success by routine:
- Instead of always trying to remember where you put your keys, you hang a nail by your door and always hang your keys up when you walk in the door.
- Instead of trying to summon the willpower to cook healthy food each night, you cook five meals on Sunday to quickly reheat daily.
- Instead of having to remember to follow up with people a month from now, you set up google calendar reminder to do it for you, automatically.
Systems don’t rely on motivation, willpower, or inspiration to operate once they’re set up. They are emotion-free. Systems make your default behavior: “I’m going to do this [awesome] thing.”
Want to actually get things done? Screw motivation, manufacture discipline. How?
Step 2: Build the Habit
We are creatures of habit.
That decision to sit on the couch instead of going for a run isn’t just a lack of building the habit of running — it’s reinforcing the habit of sitting on the couch. The decision to eat fast food rather than something healthy isn’t just a decision to not eat better, it’s running through and reinforcing the behavior of eating junk food.
Our brains are always looking for the past of least resistance, and when you perform an activity over and over again, it requires less brain power to get you to do that thing (remember how tough it was to drive a car for the first time? Now it’s something you can do with your eyes closed… wait, don’t do that).
When you are looking to build a new habit, start by keeping the habit small and actionable. Make it black-and-white: I did this/I did not do this. The smaller the better. A five minute walk. 5 minutes of playing the piano every day. 250 words written in your book.
Next, you need to put a system in place and set up a reward/accountability system that does two key things: increases the pain associated with skipping the new habit, and increases the pleasure associated with completing the habit.
You NEED to take the power away from your brain to say “meh, I can skip the run this one time” or “meh, I just don’t feel like it.”
On the positive side:
- If you go for a short run every day for the next 4 weeks, you earn a new pair of running shoes that encourages you to continue running. Reward yourself with things that reward you back.
On the negative side:
- Conversely, every day you skip a run, your friend will donate $50 of your hard earned cash to a political cause you hate. Might as well just do the run, right?
If you rely on just yourself without systems, your brain will default to the easiest path. But if you set up these incentives correctly, you take the power away from your brain (that loves to justify being lazy), and you will naturally start to build your new habit.
- Increase the pain associated with a punishment for skipping the new habit (no running = losing money)
- Increase the pleasure associated with building the new habit with a reward (running = new clothes/a class/fun that I love)
One way to create this systems is with the examples above. Another way to build these systems is through hacking our environment.
Step 3: Hack Your Batcave
Every day, everything around us subtly influences us.
Think of it like the the Force. It’s a battle between the Light and the Dark, and if you’re not careful, the Dark Side can pull your strings and influence you without even knowing it.
That bowl of candy on your desk is begging for you to acknowledge its existence. You have to use willpower throughout the day to tell yourself “don’t eat the candy, don’t eat the candy.”
At your computer, you have to use willpower all day long… “Don’t check Facebook. Don’t go to Buzzfeed. Don’t go to Imgur.” Of course, we all cave in. We check Facebook, Gmail, Imgur constantly. And then it takes us four times as long to get anything done. If our new habit was around productivity, our batcave would be a part of our system that sets us up for failure.
When we come home from work, we have to tell ourselves “don’t watch TV, go exercise.” “Don’t go to McDonalds, even though that makes you happy. Go eat a salad again.”
In every scenario above, you have to use willpower and motivation to do the thing you NEED to do, instead of the thing your brain desperately WANTS to do. And remember, willpower is limited.
So, what’s a nerd to do? Take control and alter your environment to remove the Dark Side from the equation. Build systems that automate healthy behavior. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s tough to fall back on old habits when those old habits are literally impossible to continue doing.
We call this Building Your Batcave at Nerd Fitness: Just like Bruce Wayne uses his Batcave to improve his chances of being a better Batman and protecting Gotham, you are going to build your batcave to improve your chances at being more awesome at life.
Step 1: Increase the steps between you and a bad habit you’re trying to get rid of. This is just like the above examples – make it harder to do the old habit. Changes that fight your old habits might include:
- Throwing out all junk food in your house.
- Blocking time wasting websites on your computer.
- Canceling your cable and Netflix (after you’ve watched Daredevil and Jessica Jones).
- Putting your TV in your closet. Giving the power cord to your Playstation 4 to your friend.
- Putting your alarm clock across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off.
- Moving your cell phone charger out of your bedroom so you can’t lie in bed and check it.
Step 2: Decrease the steps between you and a good habit you’re trying to build. The fewer the steps, the greater the chance you’ll actually do it. Examples include:
- Only stocking your fridge with healthy food.
- Sleeping in your workout clothes.
- Packing your gym bag and leaving it in the back of your car always so you can work out before work/after work.
- Buy a Kindle with books loaded on it and bring it everywhere so you read more.
- Put the instrument you’re learning in the middle of your living room.
- Changing the language on Facebook to the language you’re trying to learn so you’re always practicing.
Remember, screw willpower. Don’t leave it up to the whims of inspiration or motivation. Create your own success by structuring your life and building your batcave so your life is a system designed to change for the better.
So, now we have a reward and accountability system. We have hacked our batcave and put systems in place to get us to do what needs to get done.
Lastly, if you really want to succeed, you need allies.
Step 4: Surround Yourself with Allies
Now that you have systems in place, it’s time to recruit allies and teammates (just like in a video game) to help. This could mean joining a running club at work, starting a gym group on Facebook, or joining our message boards (they’re free and supportive as hell).
We become the average of the people we associate most with. If those people are successful, fit, and happy, we are subtly influenced in that direction. On the otherhand, if we surround ourselves with negative people (or are in a negative relationship), you will be influenced in that direction.
So build yourself a jedi council of people who want to level up!
- People who have succeeded in the way you want to succeed (your Yoda).
- People who are at the same level as you to keep each other accountable (your fellow Jedi).
- People who are slightly behind you. People you can teach and help (your Padawan).
- People who help push you outside your comfort zone and challenge you to be different and take risks (your Han Solo).
You do not have to go it alone… surrounding yourself with allies can be the difference between completing your quest and never building that new habit.
how to implement this strategy NOW.
Instead of resolutions, I want you to implement the above strategy by picking a habit/quest you would like to complete, and putting the system in place to make it happen. This includes identifying the daily habit and system, hacking your batcave, and recruiting allies.
Following the advice of the three steps above, here are some examples to get your brain thinking about how this can work:
I WANT TO LOSE WEIGHT:
- Eat one vegetable every day for a month to earn a new pair of pants.
- Sleep in your workout clothes, and pay your friend $50 for every skipped workout.
- Find an accountabilibuddy at your office who will work out with you.
I WANT TO LEARN A LANGUAGE:
- I will practice my language (starting on day 1) for 10 minutes each day. After two weeks I get to go to that expensive restaurant I’ve had my eye on.
- I will change my Facebook account to French.
- I will use iTalki.com to hire a language teacher for 1 hour per week.
I WANT TO RUN MY FIRST 5K:
- I will run/walk for at least five minutes, five days per week for the next month. After one month I’ve earned a new pair of running shoes.
- I will put my alarm clock across the room.
- I will join a running club.
I WANT TO START A BLOG:
- I will write 250 words every morning before I check my email.
- I will use Freedom.to to block time wasting websites, and give my friend $50 every time I don’t write.
- I will join the writer’s group on the nerd fitness message board!
I WANT TO LEARN TO PLAY AN INSTRUMENT:
- I will rent a guitar from the local store and play for five minutes every day.
- I will put the guitar in the middle of my living room, and I will cancel my cable.
- I will reach out to my friend who already plays and ask him for a lesson.
Level Up Your LIfe
2016 is going to be a big year for you.
You’re not going to rely on motivation and willpower. Those things stand no chance against the Dark Side.
Instead, you are going to build systems and create proper habits the right way. You’re are going to level up yourself as you reach goals and reward yourself with things that reward you back.
You are going to surround yourself with people who positively influence you. And you are going to level up your life. Starting right now.
If your quests are health and fitness based, this site has all the free resources you need to get started. If you are looking for more specific instruction, accountability, and community, check out the Nerd Fitness Academy and Nerd Fitness Yoga to start building better habits!
BUT START! RIGHT FREAKING NOW!
I’d love to hear from you: What is ONE quest you are going to work on? And what are the three ways you’re going to put a system in place to guarantee its success?
- Add a reward and accountability
- Restructure your batcave
- Recruit an ally.
Leave a comment below with your thoughts. Look out for another article this Thursday with even more tips on how to make 2016 the year you level up your life.
PS: My first ever published book, Level Up Your Life, is now on bookshelves! Holy crap! Make sure you check out LevelUpYourLife.com for more info!
photo: Evan Leeson: New Years, Kendra Miller: Hunger Games, Vintage Fairytale: Batman, Luiz Fillipe: Cat, Josh Janssen: Runner, clement127: New Years Legos
38 thoughts on “Suck at New Year’s Resolutions? Here’s How to Fix Them.”
YOU DID NOT just quote Kunu! This has been my motto for years now – “When life gives you lemons, just say ‘F the lemons’ and bail!” lolol.
Great points here! I just signed up for the challenge yesterday, and I do worry a little that some of my goals are too big – but all of my major ones I have committed to have a partner in crime doing them with me (like training for a half marathon – I’ll be up to 6 miles in 6 weeks). Accountability, don’t fail me now!
My New Year’s resolution (made in November, to avoid the holiday stress) is to make one happiest memory, the kind that you can look back on and enjoy for the rest of your life. You can’t really force a memory, but you can definitely create circumstances that make it more likely to happen. So…
1.) I LOVE running around outside, playing capture-the-flag and Greek dodgeball and soccer, so I am going to gradually increase my daily 10,000 steps to 15,000 by spring.
2.) I enjoy dancing, so I’m going to revel in an increasingly svelte figure and start to dress for it. Looking good encourages more dancing, which means looking even better!
3.) By summer, I expect to be back to full health and goal weight, and ready to take on parkour in earnest. If Staci’s guide comes out, that’ll definitely play a role (Assassin-Monks have got to be able to lift themselves easily over walls:)).
Fall and winter will have to wait. I’ll re-resolve in July :).
This is my first year to make resolutions in a LONG time! Here’s to losing that last 20 or so pounds like everyone else 🙂 (http://nerky.blogspot.com/2012/12/happy-new-year.html). And in keeping with my first resolution, I love your blog and you are also really ridiculously good looking.
First, a random fact: My dog goes to obedience classes in your hometown (random coincidence)
Second, my resolutions/goals:
1. Do a pullup. Then do some more. I’ve been working on this for a while and am now using your plan from here: http://www.nerdfitness.com/2011/04/25/do-a-pull-up/ I’m on step 2 and tried a pull up last night. My girlfriend estimates I got halfway 🙂
2. Keep on improving. This will take shape as the year progresses but I’m planning to do as many of the 6 week challenges as I can and keep upping my goals.
3. Try eating paleo. I try to be a “don’t knock it til you’ve tried it” sort of girl so I figure I better try it. And I love me some fruits & veggies (and meat).
4. Wear a bikini. For the first time in a very, very, very long time. And in public. I’d do it now but it’s a little chilly out. Saving this one for summertime.
Great advice- except…
watching Doctor Who is never a bad choice 😉
An excellent book in improving your self image is Psycho Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. I became “a guy who takes care of his health” in my head, and my actions follow. Can also helps in other aspects of your life you find lacking (business, public speaking, instruments, whatever)
That’s a HENCH article, I love your long blog posts, and I know that I should recommend this to someone when they question about NY resolutions! Only this year (well, last) have I started a conscious journey in my personal development, and I’ve gotta say I haven’t looked back, it’s awesome! I didn’t make a resolution 8 days ago, I went for goals (ones that I’d set way beforehand, why wait?).
Just putting it out there… I am the kind of person who doesn’t eat processed junkfood because I know how it will effect my body and workouts!
I’m zone-paleo at the moment but sometimes I slip. Just have to avoid the work lolly jar!
I was just in the gym for my first workout of four for the week (been going 13 weeks in a row without a break!), and saw a bunch of guys there I’d never seen there before, and somehow I resisted asking them, “You guys here for your new years resolutions?”
It was extremely difficult, let me tell you.
Meditating is the bomb! I recommend the practice to everyone! Currently I do ten minutes in the morning and ten at night. If anyone is interested in starting, read this: http://www.highexistence.com/the-art-of-meditation-stop-being-a-zombie/ You don’t have anything to lose by starting (the same goes with working out haha). I recomend starting slow. Steve is doing good, starting at three minutes. If thats where you want to stop, by all means do so. If you wish to increase the duration of time you meditate, increase by what is comfortable. Quality>Quanity.
Great Post! The two parts that hit home the most were 1. none of the 70+ weight loss examples started January 1st, and 2. the meditation goal. My life has been screaming at me lately, I need to start my day with just a few minutes of this. Completely borrowing this, and will enlist the support of my wife to encourage the follow through.
“Don’t do it, be it” totally put Rocky Horror Picture Show into my head!
My main new years resolution… eat Paleo! and I don’t look at it as a diet, I look at it as a lifestyle change and so far, I’m loving it! haven’t felt hungry at all since I started and even skipped my lunch (not on purpose). 😀
My New Year’s Resolution is to work out everyday and 5 minutes of it must be in front of my daughter or I will give her $5. (She doesn’t know this and I will play it off as a random present if I miss.)
that self control app is funny..ok for me ill try to wake at 4:00am everyday and walk till 7:00 pretty simple.
That is a great tip Amanda! I started eating paleo a year ago and feel it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. Best of luck to you on it!
Haha finally man! Someone who agrees that habits (and tinnnnnny baby steps) are the real key to creating fitness habits (or habits, in general) that stick. We need more people supporting this fact !
And props on getting the early morning meditation down, it’s tough but it will pay off bigtime. Once you start you can’t go back.. 😉
This article really hit a chord with me! I’ve been surprised how easy it’s been to tell myself that ‘I am that person that eats healthy and works out 3 days a week.’ So far I’ve lost 6lbs using this mentality to keep me motivated! Looking forward to further words of wisdom, Yoda!
Don’t give up on the meditation. It used to take me 30-40 minutes of focusing on “relaxing Breath” to get there, your body gets used to it and the time decreases quickly. When I sit to mediate by the time I’ve settled myself my body knows it’s mediation time and it takes only sec (maybe 30) to center myself to a place where I can meditate.
Wow, the whole article was a strong hit.
An enjoyable post with good advice. I say go the other direction and help people sabotage their new years resolutions! Just a humorous list of common resolutions pitfalls you and your readers might get a laugh out of: http://www.drbillofhealth.com/exercise/sabotage-new-years-resolutions-10-quick-easy-steps . Humor is also just what the doctor ordered for 2013! Keep up the great work, amigo!
Bill Sukala, PhD
I haven’t made NY resolutions for the past years since I always fail to achieve them. It was so nice of you to identify why this always happen but can I have a cheat day?
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Thanks for sharing, & Happy New Year!
Great tips for keeping New Year’s Resolutions. We wrote a piece on ‘the problem with New Year’s Resolutions’ check it out here: https://www.newworldchiro.com.au/2017/01/24/how-to-try-a-healthy-approach-to-new-year-s-resolutions/