New Year, New Me?

The start of the new year feels like a clean slate on which I can architect a new me. And like ~40% of my fellow Americans, I’m drawn to the idea of making resolutions. Yet for all my good intentions, the data suggest that only 40% of resolutions last for 2 months, and a dismal 19% for 2 years.

I’ve written previously on the psychology of change, the science of habit formation, and the ADKAR system of change management. These posts are all worth a second look when contemplating lifestyle adjustments. I’m also a fan of Dr. BJ Fogg, a Behavior Scientist at Stanford University.

Fogg lists the Top 10 mistakes folks make when launching self-improvement initiatives:

  1. Relying on willpower for long term change.
    From other research, I’ve learned that willpower is like a muscle that can get fatigued by excess use. Reserves get depleted by too much stress, too little sleep, too much temptation, and the like. For long term success, you need to conserve this precious resource and consider ways in which to support it.
  2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps.
    Big changes require much higher motivation and a great deal more attention to behavioral triggers. While it can be done, it’s much easier to break big changes down to baby steps and build success upon success.
  3. Ignoring how environment shapes behavior.
    When leading the same old life with all the same old triggers, it’s likely that the same old behaviors will emerge. To change your life, you need to change the context in which you live.
  4. Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones.
    It’s hard to break free of entrenched habits. In fact, when the voice inside our heads says “don’t do X,” all we can think about is X! It’s much easier to groove a new pattern and think about doing it.
  5. Blaming failure on lack of motivation.
    There are a whole lot of reasons why we have trouble sustaining change. The secret to success lies in making new behaviors easier to do.
  6. Underestimating the power of triggers.
    Neuroscience tells us that triggers play a BIG role in the things we do. If we want to break bad habits – or forge new ones – we need to be attentive to triggers that set us in motion.
  7. Believing that information leads to action.
    The psychology of change tells us that information supports individuals when they are coming to awareness of the need for change or contemplating making a change. Thereafter, it doesn’t provide much of a behavioral boost.
  8. Focusing on abstract goals rather than concrete behaviors.
    Successful change starts with getting specific about the behaviors that will lead to desired outcomes. For example, it’s not enough to say, “I want to lose 10 pounds.” The plan needs to address how that weight loss will come about – e.g., cutting X number of calories out of daily consumption and/or increasing baseline metabolism by exercising vigorously Y number of minutes per week.
  9. Seeking to change behavior forever, not for a short time.
    “Forever” is a daunting word. It seems like an insurmountable goal that brooks little tolerance for slip-ups. Alcoholics Anonymous understands this concept. The organization has helped thousands of individuals loosen the grip of addiction by practicing sobriety “one day at a time.”
  10. Assuming that behavioral change is difficult.
    Fogg assures us that behavioral change isn’t hard when supported by the right process.

So how does BJ Fogg look at change?

In simple terms, Fogg tells us that we must Trigger the desired behavior when we are Motivated and Able to do it. All three factors must be factored into process design. He illustrates with a story.

baby stepsSuppose you wanted to lose a bit of weight and improve fitness. Unfortunately, this New Year’s resolution combined with a gym membership have never gotten it done. So instead of the big lofty goal, try a simple behavioral pattern: Every time you go to the bathroom, do 20 abdominal crunches. “Get-Fit-Lose Weight” provides the motivation, the trip to the restroom provides the trigger, and the 20 sit-ups requires a bit of floor space. Groove that into a pattern for a while, then bump the reps…

What tiny steps might put you on the path to change?