Updated: Jan 11
It's that time of year where you're bound to be flooded with all kinds of articles and promotions about starting fresh and making this year different than all the rest.
I know that this post just adds to that noise, so if you want to skip the background, here's the 3 tips I encourage you to keep in mind if you want to plan differently this year. If you've already made your resolution, review these tips to see if they're included in your current plan.
In short, you'll need to design a system of habits that helps you:
Before we begin, let's acknowledge a few common pitfalls that many of us confront when trying to change our behavior, and then discuss the subtle changes we can make to overcome what often gets in our way.
After deciding that we want to create more productive habits, many of us run into three common obstacles. First, cultural norms, especially in the US, condition us to focus on outcomes by obsessing over goals. Second, we often overestimate what we can accomplish in a given amount of time. Based on this behavior loop that we create for ourselves by chasing down goals and overestimating our abilities, not to mention the various unexpected and adverse circumstances that we can't control, we become quite susceptible to the third obstacle — getting caught up in thoughts of self-doubt, failure, anxiety, worthiness, perfectionism, or some overwhelming combination of them all. In seemingly no time at all, we abandon our goals because the whole process of change feels hard and punishing.
To counteract this, we need to pivot, but not all at once or with any grand effort. Instead, we need to design a routine around small behaviors and actions that will help us consistently focus on values, achieve and celebrate small victories, and get some distance from the automatic thoughts that move us away from what matters to us. These subtle changes can impact us at work, in our personal lives, our relationships, and our passions and interests.
As you'll see in a minute, these small changes over time won't guarantee that we'll meet or exceed our wildest goals, and they certainly won't make us feel happy all the time. Instead, these shifts in behavior move us incrementally in the direction of what we care about most, which helps us bring about experiences that provide greater depth and meaning in our lives.
1. Prioritize values before goals
Another way to define "values" is to consider how you want to act in a given situation or what you want to be about. Values, in this context, are synonymous with your preferred ways of being, or "waybs" as I occasionally call them, and they help inform what you really care about and how you want to live. What's interesting, though, is that we don't often discuss our waybs, even with our closest friends or colleagues. It's far more likely for someone to ask "what do you like to do?" rather than "how do you like to be?"
And as odd as that second question sounds, it's far more connected to what's important to us in a given situation. If you were to ask me what I like to do, I would tell you that I enjoy climbing, exercising, discussing ideas, talking about emotions, and asking lots of questions. And it's true — all of those activities matter to me. What's tricky, though, is that I really care about those activities because of how they typically allow me to act.
For example, climbing often serves as a vehicle for me to live adventurously and courageously. My interest in discussing ideas and feelings helps me interact authentically, and asking lots of questions helps me show up with curiosity. One easy trick for identifying your values or waybs is by thinking of them in the form of adverbs (i.e. not what you want to be doing, but how). Here's a quick list of adverbs that also function as values: honestly, openly, strategically, independently, faithfully, healthily, cooperatively, calmly, expertly, orderly, compassionately, competitively, etc.
Activity: If you've never explored values in this way, consider using this resource to identify your values and sort them into a list of your top 3-4. You may even decide to do this across different aspects of your life — family, work, friends, or hobbies — to help you determine where to focus.
The powerful thing about values is that they function like a points on a compass — they orient you in a direction that matters to you, but with no destination. From moment to moment, you can choose to act in the direction of your values or away from them, just as you can choose to head east or west. As you might expect, over time, our experiences become more meaningful and fulfilling the more we choose a values-aligned direction.
All of this isn't to say that goals aren't useful, of course. The problem is that we often create goals without any awareness of our values. In cases where I focus only on my goals, I simply assess whether I succeed or fail. And even when I succeed, what then? What next? Without understanding my values, I'm really just guessing.
Imagine that I set a goal this year to go on 30 bike rides, which is 10 more than last year. If I'm not aware that, for me, biking is really about being adventurous and courageous, I may end up doing the same routes or going to the same places without challenging myself. Even if I meet or exceed my goal, I could end up feeling underwhelmed or dissatisfied with my results because those days of biking didn't actually move me toward my values.
Even worse, imagine that I get injured and can no longer ride. While I'd no doubt experience a sense of loss, if I'm only focused on goals, I feel absolutely stuck. Now what do I do? By knowing that I want to live courageously and adventurously, other opportunities arise. The transition might be difficult, but there's real power in having a sense of direction. For example, I might even come to find that 10 days of walking on new or different trails fulfills me more than 30 days of biking on routes that were already comfortable and familiar.
2. Be micro-ambitious
With your values identified and sorted, it's worth reassessing your overall capacity. I've borrowed this concept of micro-ambition from Tim Minchin, who delivered one of the most compelling commencement speeches I've ever heard. If you can make space for 12 minutes of clever, direct, and compassionate wisdom in your day, it's worth watching. And if you've already seen it, trust me, it's worth watching again.
In his speech, he opposes a very American idea that we ought to spend years of our life blindly pursuing long-term dreams (i.e. outcomes), and instead advocates for a "passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals." This same principle can and should be applied to our pursuit of new habits, and the commitments we make to ourselves and others.
There's a number of reasons we often fail at this. In a work setting, maybe we notice a pattern of other employees being rewarded for how much they take on. In relationships, maybe we're afraid to say "no" and disappoint our partners. On social media, we might absorb highlight reels and latch on to what appear to be overnight successes that leave out all of the consistent time and effort it took to bring about the transformation we're seeing. Over and over the same ideas are reinforced: do more, try harder, become good yesterday.
It's not that effort isn't essential; it absolutely is. We just need to stop acting like it's the only ingredient. The trick to effective behavior change is not by focusing on massive efforts in a short timeline, but to make micro adjustments over time that move us toward our values. The problem is that many of us don't think small enough. When designing new routines, our minds convince us that if we want something really different, it has to feel different and challenging. And so we dive into overly-ambitious commitments that fall apart shortly after we begin. What if the change I make doesn't actually feel like much at all because the adjustment is small enough that I don't have to spend significant energy adopting it?
Say, for example, that I decide I want to show up more expertly at work. With that value in mind, I start planning a book list that I want to finish by the end of the year. One book a month and 10 pages a day. That sounds pretty reasonable, right? While it's certainly possible, if I currently have no book-reading habits, I'm going to fail miserably. As soon as life gets busy, something unexpected occurs, or other routines automatically kick back in, I'm done for. If I design my new routine around my initial excitement and rely on positive emotions and willpower to carry me through, I'm relying on temporary feelings to create lasting change. It simply won't work.
If I really want to create a reading habit, it requires repeatable, low-to-medium cognitive effort over an extended period of time. So I'll start with a paragraph or at most a page. If that feels too hard to do multiple times a week, I'll make it smaller. On top of that, I can choose to stack that paragraph of reading in between two habits that are currently automatic for me (e.g. waking up and brushing my teeth). Once that page of reading becomes automatic, I slowly add volume (a paragraph or page at a time). If I find that I can't read more than two pages in the morning, I'll stack another chunk of reading somewhere else in my day between two other automatic routines (e.g. closing my laptop for the day and walking downstairs for a snack). It's not that this new habit actually is low-to-medium effort. It's that I'm spreading out major effort across a longer period of time so that my mind and my other priorities don't get in the way of making progress.
Resources: If you want to some more concrete suggestions on changing behavior, check out James Clear's article on habit stacking or his book Atomic Habits. If you're looking for a values-based approach to keep yourself organized and accountable, check out Polymath's Annual Rumination guide or their planners at getpolymath.com
Remember, it's not about whether I read a paragraph or a page. It's about creating a system around routine actions that help me move consistently and incrementally toward my values. The great news here is that I don't have to be perfect. I just have to prioritize my values more often than I avoid them.
3. Get distance from your thoughts
It sounds so easy, right? Just aim towards your values and set smaller goals. Maybe it would be if it weren't for the steady stream of distracting thoughts that frequently show up to derail progress. Learning to step back and get distance from these thoughts, and practicing this skill over and over again is an essential step if we're going to create lasting change.
The other good news is that we don't have to listen to our thoughts, though I'll admit that some are far more persuasive than others. Let's start with an easy example to make the point.
Activity: If you're able, go ahead and make a tight fist with both of your hands (feel free to modify if needed). For the next 15-30 seconds, I encourage you to repeat to yourself with some real passion and conviction over and over, "I can't open my hands." Feel free to start now. Really take the time to complete the exercise. Done? If so, go ahead and open your hands.
Not terribly difficult, right? Did you notice anything throughout? Even though you probably never fully believed your thought, maybe your hands opened more slowly than they would have normally. So what's the point?
Thoughts are powerful. These strings of words that show up in between our ears can easily influence our decisions even if they can't control them, and that's especially true when we aren't aware of them.
Thankfully, as we experienced above, we don't have to be controlled by our thoughts. One of my favorite quotes to emphasize this point is from Viktor Frankl. In Man's Search for Meaning, he says:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Essentially, before we respond to an event—a thought, memory, emotion, or some external input— we have a moment to decide how we want to respond. Our thoughts and emotions don't need to determine our responses, and the more we practice creating space between stimulus, thought, and response, the more we actually free ourselves from acting in ways that don't align with our values.
It's clear that we're beginning to understand how powerful a skill this is — yoga, mindfulness, and meditation practices are exploding across the US, and they are all tools (with other benefits as well) that help us tap into and grow that space between stimulus and response.
While we'll introduce more activities in future posts to help with this, here are two quick exercises that you can practice to get some distance from your thoughts. The goal of these activities is not to make the thought easier, but to create more space around it as you decide how you want to respond.
When a thought comes up that's particularly strong, start by repeating it once to yourself in your head to bring awareness to it. Maybe the thought is, "I'm so stupid." After you've said it once to yourself, say it a second time, but add in the phrase "I'm having the thought that..." Say it one last time, and this time, add the phrase, "I notice I'm having the thought that..." If helpful, repeat the third phrase a few more times and really try to step into your observing self — the version of you that can step back and watch your thoughts without reacting to them immediately. After you've done that, check in with yourself. Did you notice any differences after adding the phrases?
It can also be helpful to use metaphors to separate ourselves from our thoughts. Some people prefer the metaphor of the sky and the weather. To that end, you might say to yourself quietly, "I am the sky and my thoughts are the weather." Feel free to get creative and specific with your descriptions: "I am the sky, and the stupidity storm is raining down right now. Like any weather, it will pass." Others prefer the metaphor of a chessboard. In this metaphor, I might say, "My thoughts and emotions are the pawns and I am the chessboard." To be more playful with it, I might add, "My frustrated queen just took two of my calm knights. And so it goes, I'm still the board."
Again, the purpose of getting distance here is not to latch on to the enjoyable feelings or to get rid of the difficult ones. It's to remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts, and in reminding ourselves of that, to decide how we want to respond. Preferably, we'll choose a response more often than not that aligns our values (i.e. how we want to be in the world).
I think that's enough to digest for now! As a quick checklist, here are some questions to ask yourself as you reflect on your resolutions:
Is/are my resolution(s) based on values or goals?
Am I trying to do too much too quickly? Can I make the effort smaller?
Where can I stack this new resolution in my day?
What am I practicing to get some distance from my thoughts?
Wishing you all the resilience, willingness, and energy you need to navigate this coming year. And in the spirit of micro-ambition, I hope you spend these next few minutes in a way that matters to you.
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