Every single year, many of us sit down to reflect on the 12 months that have just elapsed, and the 12 in front of us. How well did we do on our own personal scale, and what can we learn and take forward to move towards the things we want to achieve? The beauty and tyranny of the blank page in equal measures.
But we have been here before. The year before, and the year before that. Some things we have managed to change, and others we have not.
The "gym spike" is a real thing, with a huge increase in membership sign-ups in January of between 34% and 50%, slumping back to previous levels by March. Advertising plays on this, of course, given that so many of us are feeling far from our personal best after the indulgence of the holidays, and the blank page of a new year offers that chance at redemption. Advertisers play on this, and tap into that feeling every single year.
Setting goals and then not achieving them is just not good for us. We can feel demotivated, disempowered and just plain disappointed in ourselves. Or, we can blame all the stuff that got in our way, and while we are sitting down to set new goals, we have not really addressed the real reasons why the previous attempt did not succeed. It is a bad cycle to fall into.
The thing is that, while most of us have heard of SMART goals, stretch goals and all the rest of it, we don't often talk about the habits and personal beliefs that underpin all of it. We can set all the incremental targets we want, but if something fundamental is not shifting in the way we see our ability to achieve them, or in the daily habits that support change, then we are just setting ourselves up for more disappointment.
So what might we do to set ourselves up for a greater chance of success in setting resolutions? Fortunately, we really are starting to understand a whole lot about how to build lasting change into our lives.
This focus on moving forward is only half the story. As we learn to do new things, or to build in new habits, we have to unlearn the old ones. This process of adaptive unlearning is a combination of letting old habits or beliefs wither away and gradually building in new ones. The phrase "deep unlearning" is key here, because we are talking about habits and beliefs which might have been ingrained for decades: how we eat, how we communicate, how we feel about ourselves and so much more.
Deep unlearning requires us to really reflectively question why we do things the way we do them, and unpack all the elements that make up the choices we make. So much of this has become automated by a brain that just loves routine, predictability, and the same ol' same.
Rather than just saying "I need to become better at listening to others" this year, and going straight to goal setting, we recommend spending time on the deconstruction of your old habits first. Why do you interrupt people? Is it all people, or just some? What triggers this behavior? How do you feel when interrupted? Who makes you feel like you are really being listened to?
Preparing to make change in our lives is going to work much better if we are feeling good in general. Eating and sleeping well, and setting positive routines in place, is all fundamentally part of this. Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, in his hugely popular podcast, talked at length about the neurology and biochemistry of making and breaking habits. He summarized this by saying that "Adjusting habits requires overcoming “limbic friction” (energy to overcome anxiety, procrastination and/or fatigue). You’ll want to leverage the natural rhythms of your brain and body to make it more likely that you will engage or maintain habits"
From optimal caffeine intake and delay, to daylight exposure and focus setting, Huberman sets out the empirical approach to a well crafted day that will support wider change. The biochemical effects of food are really well documented by Doctor Michael Greger on his not-for-profit website Nutritionfacts, which goes into much greater detail on the way different food affects our mood, our chemistry, and our ability to be the best versions of ourselves.
The 31st of December does not morph into the 1st of January suddenly. The clock ticks, the year shifts, and the transformation is sudden and radical. Habit change is not like that at all. When we sit in our sofas watching TV on the 31st and explode out of the house in lycra-clad optimism on the 1st, that race is not a marathon, but a sprint, and it will be over shortly.
Real change happens a little bit at a time. Smokers might one day just reach for the chewing gum instead of the cigarette, but though the action was sudden, there was likely a gradual process of change behind it, from cutting down, to reflecting on the impact of the habit on hygiene, health and finances.
The law of marginal gains says that small changes made each day can add up to remarkable results. This is well documented in areas like sports and business, and author James Clear in his book Atomic Habits has taken this much further into a clearly codified manual for making lasting change in our lives.
This really is a remarkable book, and no, we are not receiving a commission from the publisher to say so. We could delve into neuroscience or behavioral psychology, but Clear really has drawn it all together for us with three key lessons.
Lesson one is "Small habits make a big difference" and the law of marginal gains is key here. Mathematically, if you get one percent better each day, you'll be 37 times better by the end of the year. Have you ever walked up a hill, step by step, then turned round and been surprised at how high you've climbed? It's like that, and starting the 1st of January by saying you're going to get 1% better at something each day, rather than go from 0 to 100 overnight, is far more realistic.
Lesson two is "Forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead". This is really interesting, because the focus is not on the goal itself, but on all of the things you do that support the opposite. If your goal is to "get fit", you are less likely to succeed, than by saying "I will focus on identifying and breaking all the bad habits that support an unhealthy lifestyle". When you come from work and immediately slump into a chair, then identify the cue and the reward, and focus on changing that by removing it or making it unattractive.
Lesson three is "build identity-based habits". This means again not focusing on what you want to do, but who you want to be. Every time you make a small change towards that, it is effectively a vote towards building that new identity. Gandhi didn't actually say "be the change you wish to see" in those exact words, but that was the essence of it. And it is true.
"The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.” (Atomic Habits, p.27)
Advertisers know how you want to feel, and tell you the cure is by consuming their goods or services. Tradition talks of setting goals on 1st January about changed behaviors, as though we can simply flick a switch, and it's all about "willpower", whatever that is. And when we fail to achieve these goals, we turn that inwards and tell ourselves the story that we can't change, or that it is just too hard.
Be gentle with yourself. By understanding our own brains, and cultivating new systems to break apart old ones but by bit, we can change at our own pace, and celebrate every small step towards whom we want to be. You can't sell that, mass produce or commoditize it, which is perhaps why we hear far less about it. That does not make it any less true.
So beyond 2023, we ask you: who is it you want to be?