3 Subtle Mindset Shifts to Improve Your New Year's Resolutions - THINKERS Notebook

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3 Subtle Mindset Shifts to Improve Your New Year's Resolutions

A new year is right around the corner, which means that many of us will soon start making plans for how we can be better and do better in 2021.

We will make these plans with the best of intentions, yet many of us also recognize that most New Year's resolutions fail ... often by the second week in January!

Why is that?

Well, the simple answer first: change is difficult. So even with the best of intentions, a well-considered plan, and plenty of support, any resolution to change can fail. Such is life as a human being.

But, of course, it's not that simple. It also need not be that dire.

Because many New Year's resolutions do succeed (read a little farther down this link). And when any personal resolution for change succeeds, it's usually because these three elements are in place:

1. Focus on behaviors, not outcomes

It's so easy to orient our resolutions around outcomes:

  • Lose 10 pounds
  • Make more money
  • Gain expertise on a particular topic

Those are all perfectly worthy outcomes to pursue, but you set yourself up to fail if you focus on the outcomes instead of the ongoing behaviors that will be necessary to get there.

Instead, think this way:

  • Set an earlier bed time (yes, sleeping more will help you lose weight)
  • Schedule two hours every weekend to work on a side project.
  • Read one book per month on the topic you want to gain expertise in.

Committing to these specific, regular behaviors, and performing them consistently, will help you far more than getting stuck focusing on the big fuzzy picture of the outcome.

2. Choose approach-oriented goals, not avoidance-oriented goals

A recent large-scale study of New Year's resolutions found that approach-oriented goals give you a great likelihood of success than avoidance-oriented goals.

The reason seems to be that humans have a much better time replacing an unwanted behavior than simply trying to erase it.

Let's stick with our example above. Each of the behaviors listed in the second set of bullets is approach-oriented. Consider how much more likely to be successful they are than than these alternatives:

  • Stop eating after 8:00 p.m.
  • Don't go out drinking on the weekends.
  • Don't watch so much TV.

It's not that each of those behavior changes wouldn't be worthwhile; they would be. But it's too easy for your motivation and commitment to wane when all you're doing is removing a behavior that your brain has indicated gives it at least temporary, fleeting pleasure.

Replacing a "no eating after 8:00 p.m." directive with an earlier bed time shifts your focus to the new behavior and all of the benefits it provides. That's a far more powerful motivator than just having to sit on your couch lamenting the junk food you're craving but can't eat.

3. Think big but start small

It's certainly fine to have big goals. We should all strive to do and achieve in a way that maximizes our potential.

But just because we think big doesn't mean that we always have to act big to get there.

Here's what I mean ...

Say that in addition to going to bed earlier as part of your plan to lose 10 pounds, you also want to exercise more. Great! But how should you approach building a new exercise habit?

You could make a big, bold claim like, "I'm going to go to the gym for an hour five time a week for the whole year!" And hey, if you actually do that (with proper diet and recovery built in), then great.

But as habits expert James Clear is always quick to explain, thinking smaller is actually the better pathway to success.

Think about it this way: if you haven't been going to the gym, why do you all of a sudden think you'll be able to stick with such an ambitious schedule?

Instead, set yourself up for success with a small initial behavior change ("I'll go to the gym for 10 minutes" or "I'll do five pushups")  that is easy to commit to and perform, which you can that methodically build on. Slowly add more minutes at the gym; start doing an extra push-up each day.

Approach your New Year's resolutions -- or any resolution for change -- with these three subtle but important mindset shifts, and you'll set yourself up for success where most others fall short.

Instead of demanding perfection, plan ahead for failure


"But while your plan should be realistic and encouraging, it should also allow for inevitable hurdles that are going to crop up. Pauline Wallin, a psychologist and author of “Taming Your Inner Brat,” said any resolution plan should include room for mistakes. “You’re there for the long haul. You have to expect slip ups,” she said. “There will be times when you will say, ‘I’ll make a mess of things and I’m just going to start again tomorrow.’ Don’t berate yourself. Focus on what you’re doing good for yourself rather than what mistake you made,” she said."

Read: How to Make (and Keep) a New Year's Resolution (New York Times)

Maybe a little variety will help?


"I love the variety that comes along with making a shift every month. Rather than needing to stick with one thing, I have the opportunity to explore a bunch of different life changes (both small and large). I might just land on some hobbies, passions, and routines that really work with me—things that I want to incorporate well beyond the one-year mark."

Watch: This New Year's Resolution Hack Is a Game Changer (if You Hate Making a 365-Day Commitment) (The Muse)

Consider why you've stayed committed to undesirable behaviors in the first place


"Until you grasp why you're sticking like a burr to old habits and routines, it may be hard to muster enough energy and will to take a hard left toward change. Unhealthy behaviors like overeating and smoking have immediate, pleasurable payoffs as well as costs.

So, when you're considering a change, take time to think it through. You boost your chance of success when the balance of pluses and minuses tips enough to make adopting a new behavior more attractive than standing in place. Engaging in enjoyable aspects of an unhealthy behavior, without the behavior itself, helps too. For example, if you enjoy taking a break while having a smoke, take the break and enjoy it, but find healthier ways to do so.

Otherwise, you're working against a headwind and are less likely to experience lasting success."

Read: Seven steps for making your New Year’s resolutions stick (Harvard Health Publishing)Below are three more links on this topic that you may find useful.

Also, quick programming alert: with the next two Fridays being Christmas Day and New Year's Day, the THINKERS Roundup is going to take a short holiday hiatus. We'll be back on the regular schedule in January.

Have a safe, joyful, and thoughtful finish to your 2020!

Quote of the week

The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” 

-- Michael Altshuler