New year, new you. That’s a healthier, more ambitious and more productive you, right ?
Waiting until the start of the year to introduce a new set of behaviours can be useful. Reseting the calendar to 1/1 and the prospect of an unblemished year ahead can have a powerful effect in recalibrating the mind.
As Chief Instigator of The Sound Horizon, my role involves getting things started. I always recommend that the best time to begin with a new behaviour or activity is whenever you’ve committed to do it. It’s rarely at the time when the calendar says so, your workload permits or the planetary alignment is ideal.
Right now is usually a great time, whether the calendar says January 1 or November 17.
Whenever you choose to try, here are some tips which we have found to work, and which are abstracted from behavioural economics, psychology and understanding of the innate human factors which drive us all. We’ve also linked to some resources for further reading and listening should you want to understand the thought and rationale behind them.
1. Create a default behaviour.
Right now, let’s make the assumption that you’re not actively doing what you want to. So your default behaviour is set not to do that thing. Set a diary date so that default expectation is that you will do it. This will provide you with a visible nudge and a reminder. For more about the power of defaults, choice architecture and nudges, read what Thaler and Sunstein have to say in the book Nudge. “Setting default options, and other similar seemingly trivial… strategies, can have huge effects on outcomes, from increasing savings to improving health care to providing organs for lifesaving transplant operations.”
The cleverest of marketers and sales people use this on you, so why not try it on yourself?
2. Reward yourself for starting.
Getting started with a challenging or unpalatable thing – such as going to the gym vs. sleeping in – deserves a reward in its own right. Instead of (or as well as) rewarding yourself for completing it, give yourself an immediate reward for having started. Whether it’s a few raisins or five minutes of your favourite song, your reward circuits will fire when you start, wiring the pleasure and activity into your brain. Don’t delay the reward. “What fires together wires together, says Roger Thompson, Associate professor, Stony Brook University – he talks about how simultaneous experiences wires associations into kids brains in this article but the approach can work just as well for your adult cortex.
3. Make the activity enjoyable.
“It’s a simple truth: you are less likely to continue doing something that you do not enjoy. “ says Max Ogles writing on Nir Eyal’s inspirational blog Nir and Far. Ogles talks about the “Minimum Enjoyable Activity” and about injecting some joy and attractiveness into unpalatable activities. If opening that document or staring the project is just not something you can stomach on its own, combine it with a pleasurable activity. Open it while drinking the last pumpkin spice latte of the year if that’s what floats your boat. Check out the useful Habit Success Matrix on the page while you’re there.
4. Combine willpower with capability.
Yes, top sportspeople and athletes use proven psychological techniques to deliver the incremental performance they need to break those world records or score that amazing try or goal. But they are doing it from a position of regular training and physical excellence. Sure, you might run a marathon or a 10K from a standing start with no training but you’re more likely to win with “mind over matter” if that matter is already solid. “The last thing you want is ability getting in the way when you’re already battling with your willpower.” to quote the Exist blog which talks about habit tracking. Reforming smokers battling with highly addictive nicotine fare better when they have the capability through hypnosis or patches. Check out this great Freakonomics Podcast on “When WillPower Isn’t Enough”
5. Don’t beat yourself up.
If you set realistic goals and you’re pragmatic about the amount of time, energy and willpower you have, you should be able to achieve what you’ve diarised. This may seem counterintuitive after reading point 1 above but see the date with yourself as a reminder, not an obligation. If you miss it through understandable pressures, reschedule rather than admit immediate defeat. Successful behaviour change programs, not least alcoholics Alcoholics Anonymous, include a focus on taking each day as it comes.
While January 1 is a convenient starting point, don’t be surprised if those resolutions are unravelling around about now. Conflicting pressures on your time, the return of paradigmatic behaviours such as the school run and office hours, and lethargy emerging after the Christmas break can make new year a challenging time to adhere to resolutions. In fact, if you live in the northern hemisphere, low levels of Serotonin from the shortest days of the make this one of the most challenging times to muster will power to bring about change.
In short, getting started and staying started requires ambition to be matched with capability. Will power is great, but will ultimately be in limited supply and will eventually give out. Our default behaviours and paradigms provide a surprisingly powerful counterforce to personal (and organisational) change, but they can be defeated if you create and adhere to new paradigms. And if January 1 didn’t bring about that new productive you, there’s always January 8. Or March 22, or November 17.
Whatever, whenever you want, get started.
Author’s note and disclaimer. These are just a few techniques which may or may not work for you. However two of these combined succeeded in getting me running after an 18-year hiatus in 2015 – and have also led to this blog seeing the light of day.