I know your intentions are good; you want to make meaningful changes in your life. You want to drop some habits and build new ones. You want to take advantage of the promise and possibility of a new year. You're feeling inspired and energized. But don't do it.
Why not? Because the whole concept of New Year's resolutions -- and the approach that we often take -- is in complete contradiction to how our minds and bodies actually make changes and how new habits are formed. The result (which many of us know) is that a week or a month later, our resolutions have crumbled, and we're doing the same old thing, which triggers feelings of shame and failure. We end up farther back than we were before we set the resolution.
Five Effective Ways to Make Change
I'm not discouraging you from making changes in your life. I'm a coach, and working with people on making changes is what I do. I want to offer alternatives to New Year's resolutions that work.
1. Get Clear on What You Want
Winter offers an opportunity to reflect on our lives. When you feel relaxed and rested, let your thoughts wander to how you'd like your life to be some three to five years into the future. Try to stay away from the "I don't want" list, and let your mind gravitate to what feels energizing and inspiring.
Also, don't focus on specifics around where or what, but tune into the feelings. How would you like to feel? Stay open to images of your ideal life. In broad strokes, what would you like to be doing? Generally, where would you like to be? Who might you want to be around? If you notice yourself getting stuck on details like, "I want to teach abroad for a year, but who would take care of my dog, and what if I couldn't return to my school?" -- pull yourself back. Get into a dreamy, imaginative space. Trust the process.
2. Identify Small Steps
Identify small steps that might lead you toward your envisioned desired states. Maybe you want to feel energetic and healthy in five years. Maybe you imagine an active life, or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, or simply being able to pick up your kids without back pain.
You know that in order to make progress towards those ends, you need to start eating healthier and getting more exercise.
If your long-term vision involves getting a PhD, or teaching abroad, or starting your own school, you can identify some (as many as possible) of the steps you could take to start that journey. The key is not to get too attached to the destination. The journey there might lead you somewhere else that you might miss if you're too focused on an end-goal.
In order to take the small steps that will lead to big changes, you need to be well-anchored in your vision of something different. If making small changes is challenging, return to step one. Imagine. Visualize. Dream.
3. Create Behavior Chains
If you want to build new habits, you'll be more successful if you build them into routines that you already do. This leads us to create environmental triggers that let us know that it's time to act on a habit. This way, we're not trying to do something through force of will power; we're adding habits to already existing ones. An "if-then" plan for each new habit you want to build will trigger a new behavior.
For example, if you want to develop healthier eating habits, then your "if-then" plan might sound like this: "If I'm hungry in the afternoon, then I'll eat almonds and dried fruit." Or, "If I need to pick up dinner when I don't have time or energy to cook, then I'll select from two places that I know have salads with healthy proteins."
4. Pave The Path
If you want to eat healthier, and you've determined that your mid-afternoon snack will be almonds, then you need to buy the almonds and stash them all over the place -- in your bag, desk, car, and cabinets. Do that now.
If you've decided that you'll go to the gym before school on Monday and take a walk after school on Wednesday, then think through the steps that will lead you to be successful, and set those in place. Get your gym clothes out, and leave them right next to your bed on Sunday night. Keep walking shoes in your car. Plan ahead to eliminate any possible excuse you could come up with.
5. Reflect on Breakdowns
You are going to have breakdowns on any journey that's worth traveling. You'll have setbacks, and your fragile new habits may limp along for some time. When they breakdown, do some analysis of what happened. You may find a new behavior chain you need to incorporate. You may see how you can more solidly pave the path. You may need to return to step one and strengthen your vision, or you may find that the destination to which you wanted to travel may not be the "right" one for you.
You may need to revise your long-term vision or goal. Get curious about your breakdown, banish shame from this exploration, and look for places where you can make little tweaks to your routines.
Make changes in your life in this new year, please go ahead. But stay away from big declarative goals. Say no to New Year's resolutions and yes to small and sustained changes.