Updated: Mar 31, 2022
This post was written in collaboration with Tejas Yoga Lab in Cornelius.
In her new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, University of Pennsylvania behavioral scientist Katy Milkman explains why habit forming is so difficult, why New Years resolutions don't work, and productive ways to subvert our programming for meaningful and lasting change.
Resolutions do not work
40% of Americans set resolutions at the beginning of each year, to start dieting, going to the gym, reading more, attending church more regularly, etc., but only 10% of those individuals succeed at lasting change.
Why? We rely on the idea of "willpower" to overcome our natural tendencies, but willpower does not work, because:
we naturally pursue instant gratification and simple pleasures
we are forgetful (most of our behavior is simple, unconscious habit) and have limited capacity for focus
we typically seek the path of least resistance
we have naturally low capacity for new habit forming, especially when replacing deeply ingrained habits
our social networks are not supportive, so we try to go it alone, at odds with our friends and family
we have low motivation: we are already so busy, so tired, so stretched thin, we feel we have little capacity to take on more
Yet, Milkman found that 40% of all deaths annually could be attributed to bad habits, and, therefore, could have been prevented or delayed for a longer, healthier life.
There are Two Types of People in the World
those who want and may even plan to make changes, yet never do
those who persevere constantly to make the changes they want to see
Realistically, these "two types" are in all of us. We all want to be the best versions of ourselves, right? We simply have to figure out how to adopt these productive habits to meet those goals.
In a recent Ten Percent Happier podcast episode, Katy Milkman and host Dan Harris discussed the pitfalls of traditional habit forming, and how to improve habit forming with science-backed strategies. Katy explained that people who seem to have strong willpower actually just have successful systems for maintaining the habits that help them reach their goals. Here are a few of the talking points that may help you in the new year:
investment: if you invest in your goal, such as purchasing a gym or yoga studio membership, an app subscription, etc., you are more likely to stick to the practice. Scheduled classes, app notifications, and the simple risk of "wasting money" on a purchase you didn't use can be effective motivators, and this is why gym memberships increase dramatically each January. The investment alone is not enough, though, obviously, or more people would succeed.
set milestones: it is important to look at any habit forming as an ongoing "practice" with no end date in site; but set milestones to keep you motivated along the way, so the goal remains attainable.
flexibility is key: a rigid schedule can sabotage your goals. While running at the same time every morning can help develop a good exercise habit, your schedule may not allow it every day. Back up your goal schedule with intent, so that running at a different time or missing a day doesn't result in feelings of guilt or self-sabotage.
self-compassion: You must support yourself through the good and bad, and know that failure is an important part of any major process. Give yourself a break! This isn't the same as ego-based willpower and pride; quite the opposite in fact. This is self knowledge, self understanding, and an objective perspective that allows you to see the big picture as a guide, even during your lowest moments of failure.
meaningful goal: this is the most important aspect of habit forming. When setting a new goal, you have to weigh all your responsibilities and determine what you might have to give up in order to reach it. If you decide to stop drinking, for instance, it may not be as effective to tie the effort to cost, health, or simple willpower, as it may be to relate the goal to the personal intent to be more present for your children. That way, every time you consider taking a drink, you weigh the decision more deeply within the context of the person you want to be, rather than the goal you want to achieve. Meaningful intent is more effective than a temporary achievement, and creates continuity for lasting change.
intent: this ties closely to the previous point. If your goal is to improve the way you feel or save money, etc., it is a worthy goal, and you may achieve it. To really make a change, however, you must live the change. You must subvert deeply ingrained, unconscious habits by applying conscious intent, often while holding that goal with self-compassion and an idea of who you want to be. This puts the habit change in the context of becoming your best self: authentic, caring, courageous, present, and available. This will make you strong in change, and the practice will solidify as habit, The practice will help you become the person you want to be: the person you truly are beneath all those years of ingrained habits.
Rome wasn't built in a day, as they say, and change does not come easily. It requires deeply personal goals, a focused practice, self awareness, and humility to succeed. If your goal is to live life as a better you, you will find the world around you changing to support you, and your practice will become your life.
Happy New Year, my friends. You've got this!
Jamie Duncan is residential solar consultant operating in the Lake Norman/Charlotte area of North Carolina. Please see link for all contact information and Calendly connection to learn more or set up a virtual or in-person appointment to discuss solar for your home.