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Time For Change: Making New Year’s Resolutions That Work For You

New Year’s Resolutions have a particular poignancy as we enter 2022. The start of the new year provides a timely prompt to ensure that this one will be different. Resolutions though are notorious for being unsuccessful; whether it’s setting too many at once, making the change too ambitious, or the process of achieving the change being so arduous that success feels like an anti-climax.

Many resolutions draw on a desire to adopt healthier habits to achieve the desired outcome. James Clear’s podcast on The Right Way to Form New Habits, identifies a number of strategies to ensure goals are successfully achieved through creating new habits and reducing barriers and potential disillusionment from the process. In my work in healthcare, where pandemic-related overwhelm and burnout are rife, I’ve found the following points to be especially helpful in supporting people to adopt healthier habits.

1) Keep the first change small

The ultimate aim may be to regain a sense of balance and purpose but, if you’re starting from zero, the change is massive. Scale it down to something that’s simple and easy to do, and ideally only takes a few minutes. So, running three times a week becomes putting on running shoes; daily meditation becomes pausing for 1 minute before the next meeting to count your breaths and clear your mind. Like sowing seeds to establish a new crop, a habit needs to be established before it can grow.

2) Focus on who you are, not the outcome you want

Many resolutions focus on the desired outcome – e.g. better work-life balance, reduced procrastination at work, or being a better team-lead. It can be helpful to switch that focus to consider the type of person who achieves these goals, and to build habits that reflect that persona. By considering the traits of a successful persona, it becomes easier to integrate those behaviours into daily life and to create the evidence that you are such a person. In that moment, when you don’t check email at 9pm, when you put your phone in a drawer and leave it there for a couple of hours, or when you start a team-meeting with a clear agenda, you are that person. Having done it once, you can do it again. It can also be helpful to adjust the narrative that you tell yourself; someone who identifies as an ex-smoker is more likely to cease smoking than someone who describes themselves as a smoker wanting to give up.

3) If you can, redesign your environment

Bad habits develop because they’re easy and the reward is swift. Like weeds, they are more tenacious and faster to take hold than the seeds you choose to plant. Healthier habits take more effort to adopt and the reward tends to be in the future; whether it’s being more present for friends and family, more productive at work, or speaking up more in team meetings. If you’re struggling to make progress with a goal, it’s worth asking yourself how you can make it easier and reduce the friction it creates rubbing up against existing habits. Can you change the timing for the habit you want to adopt so it fits into your life more easily? Is there something you already do that you can use to prompt you to take that next step? How can you make a bad habit more inconvenient?

4) Create connections

Spending an extra 10 minutes in a day reviewing and refining your work by itself is not going to change much. But, making it a daily habit means that the 10 minutes per day compounds and makes a much greater difference over the course of a few months than if that 10 minutes a day wasn’t being invested. Each 10-minute segment informs and supports the next, and the gap between taking that time and effort and not doing it becomes wider and wider. It’s performing the habit consistently that makes the difference.

5) Commit to the long-term

A challenge to sticking to a new habit is that progress will be slow. After a month, or even six months, the incremental change may not be as visible as you hoped. However, that doesn’t mean that the time and effort you’re investing in it isn’t paying off, it’s just building to a critical mass where suddenly it will become apparent just how far you’ve come. Your new energy levels and mental alertness aren’t from the most recent night’s sleep you’ve had, it’s a culmination of the new routine you’ve adopted.

6) Seek feedback at a similar frequency as the habit

Particularly in a work environment, feedback can be delayed or opaque, and it’s not always obvious what specific difference your contribution made. However, a feeling of making progress is important to maintain motivation. Identify a metric about the new habit, whether it’s introducing yourself to a new work colleague each week, or completing your timesheets routinely rather than leaving them to build-up; and track the number of times you do it successfully. Acknowledge and reward yourself for consistently achieving the new habit and the investment you are making in yourself.

With patience and persistence, and knowing what you can realistically commit to, anything is possible. That first single step won’t change your world but, by sticking with it, there will be a tipping point when it becomes easier to keep the good habit and to use it to create the next step, and then the next. Successfully creating new habits is not a goal to reach, it’s a journey where continual refinement will take you as far as you want to go.

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