“New Year, New Me”. If I had a pound for every time I’d seen that phrase on social media, I’d have a very full piggy bank! It’s January, the start of a new year, and a time when most are setting New Year’s Resolutions, determined that this year will be the year that they lose that weight, run that marathon, apply for that dream job, or emigrate to New Zealand. Yet, come late-Jan, the new year’s enthusiasm is often as weary as the weather, and many will have slipped back into old routines, deciding that, a second thought, maybe next year will be their year of transformation.
The slump is hard to resist—we’re hard-wired to avoid change, even with the prospect of future gain on the cards. And if you’re unable to stick to Dry January, or your new gym membership card is silently judging you as it gathers dust in a kitchen drawer, it’s easy to be self-critical, cursing your apparent lack of willpower and giving up before you’ve really given yourself a chance.
Because I’m from an elite sporting background, I don’t really believe in New Year’s Resolutions—when I was competing the beginning of a ‘year’ was the start of season in September, so that was always the most logical time to assess changes that needed to be made for the coming 12 months. But the main reason that I don’t believe in them is for the same reason that, “I’ll start the diet on Monday” doesn’t usually work for sustained behavioural change. Committing the change to a future time or day is just postponing what we can’t deal with now, and when Monday (or the New Year) arrives, we inevitably lack the preparation or motivation to actually go through with whatever has been ascribed by our past selves.
So, if you feel your resolve slipping already, but do desperately want to make some lifestyle adjustments, how can you beat the trap of ‘irresolution’ that most of us fall into?
Ignore the date
I have a healthy mistrust of the sentiment that it needs to be the start of a day, a month, or a year to make positive changes. What’s wrong with now? Making a rule that you can only start something on a specific day—Mondays, month beginnings, solar eclipses, or when Mercury is in retrograde—is just procrastination at its finest.
This mindset is also damaging when you (inevitably) slip-up along the way. If you’ve created a rule that you have to be vegan for the whole week, and you cave in to a bacon sarnie on Tuesday morning, many people will write off the rest of the week, thinking their ‘cheat’ on Tuesday disqualifies them until the next arbitrary start date they’ve set (usually the following Monday will seem like a good time to try again).
Over time, resolve weakens, and weeks off become more common than weeks on. If you slip up along the way it doesn’t invalidate your previous efforts, and it certainly doesn’t render you immune from the benefits of future efforts.
So, ignore the date. Sticking with a new habit 80% of the time, with the occasional slip-up along the way, is better than sticking with a new habit 100% for the first three days and then deciding that it’s not for you because you couldn’t keep a perfect streak.
Decide who you want to be this year, not just what you want to achieve
When it comes to making positive changes, our identity can play a huge part in keeping us motivated. Elite athletes don’t just have a set of goals to strive towards; they also have an incredibly strong sense of who they are, and the behaviours they need to adopt in order to achieve those goals. Acting in accordance with our identity is far more powerful than just having an arbitrary objective in mind, and deciding the kind of person you want to be can go a long way towards shifting behaviour (and, more importantly, helping you stick with that behaviour, even after the goal is achieved).
It might sound like a silly difference but let’s have a look at the change in narrative. Many will start 2020 thinking the following: “My goal is to get fit and lose weight this year”.
If we forget about the outcome (what does ‘getting fit’ even mean?) and start focusing on identity then the narrative becomes: “I want to be someone who can keep up with their kids. I want to be someone who inspires their colleagues. I want to be someone who can truly enjoy mealtimes because I know I lead an active lifestyle”. Ultimately, you’re going for the same result but, for many people, the motivation only sticks if they make a decision about who they want to be, not just what they want to achieve.
I eat too much meat. I am guilty, like many others, of seeing meat as a staple part of a healthy diet, and I include it with most meals—buying and cooking meat is something I’ve done for the majority of my independent life. Eating excessive amounts of meat (or any meat at all) isn’t sustainable for our planet and I know I should cut down. As December came to a close, I considered attempting to go meat free for the whole of Jan. This kind of radical commitment works for some people, but I don’t think it would work for me. I’m a fairly strong-willed person but as soon as I start thinking about going meat free, I get cravings for steak and chips. By cutting out meat completely, it becomes more attractive, like when you tell a toddler they can’t have any sweets—instant rebellion! I could probably make it through January without any meat but, come February, I’d be back at the butcher, ready to stock the freezer and make up for my abstinence.
What I need to do, ultimately, is become as geeky about vegetarian food as I currently am about meals that include meat. To learn how to cook vegetables in a way that makes them the star of the dish, so I’m not reliant on thinking, “where’s the chicken?” every mouthful. What I really need to do, is change my mindset from thinking that a meal must include some kind of animal for it to be truly delicious.
When people make significant behavioural change, it seems they often go too big too soon. A person who is predominantly sedentary decides this is the year they’ll run a marathon, so they try to start out with a 5km run. Someone who wants to lose weight bans themselves from anything containing fat and sugar. These first steps are huge! Is it any wonder why, when we don’t see immediate change from our significant effort (because it usually requires us to get to a critical threshold before we see noticeable changes) that we become disillusioned and demotivated?
So, start super small. Go for a 5-minute run to begin with, not a 5k. Ban sugar from your house but allow yourself to have a treat at weekends or when out with friends. Choose to go veggie once or twice a week, and challenge yourself to make those meals more delicious, more mouth-watering and more irresistible than your meaty meals. It doesn’t matter how small the first step is, once the new behaviour is part of your routine it’s easy for that behaviour to propagate until it becomes your new norm. The challenge isn’t to will your way past unbearable cravings, it’s to re-wire your brain to crave the new habit.
‘New Me’ or ‘Old Me (with some improvements)’
Who is this ‘New Me’ you keep imagining? You’re not an iPhone! Unfortunately we can’t just plug in, connect to Wi-Fi and upgrade to the latest operating system. Yet many people truly believe that they need to attain this new improved version of themselves to be worthy and happy. If you’re stuck in this mindset then you might be setting yourself up to continually fall short of some future perfection that you think is attainable. Don’t live your life being that person. Get comfortable in the knowledge you, right here, right now, are enough.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious and I’m definitely not saying there won’t be room for improvement (we’re all human after all), but I believe it is best to approach self-improvement with an attitude of curiosity (‘how will my life differ if I make this change?’) rather than continual reprimand for not yet being the perfect you. Spoiler alert, the perfect you doesn’t exist and never will! We’re all messy and flawed, trying to do our best in an uncertain world. We can certainly change our systems and habits and gear ourselves towards better results, but the goal shouldn’t be a pre-conceived notion of perfection.
Get honest with yourself
What beliefs do you have that stop you making positive change? This is a difficult question to answer (and ask!) but the reality is that, whilst the majority of our belief system benefits us and keeps us safe, we all have a set of self-limiting beliefs too. Many self-limiting beliefs are stored in our subconscious, so we don’t even realise that having them is inhibiting our progression, because they’re it’s not part of our conscious narrative.
Only by digging deeper (and being truly honest with yourself) can you discover what it is that is holding you back. The first step is becoming vulnerable enough to understand why you’re not already operating at the desired level. Only by acknowledging your habits, your downfalls, your Kryptonite, can you begin to start thinking about self-improvement.
Self-limiting belief: The happiness of other people is more important than my own happiness. As long as they’re happy I can be happy. Being selfless is good, being selfish is bad.
How it might make me behave: Putting others first at a cost to myself. Seeing the needs of others as my number one priority.
New belief: My own happiness is my number one priority. This comes above all else. Sometimes the most selfless thing I can do is be selfish about my own needs so that I’m in a better place (mentally & physically) to give to others.
Self-limiting belief: Making big decisions opens up the opportunity to fail. Decision avoidance mitigates this risk.
How it might make me behave: Avoid making decisions about things, adopt the attitude that no decision is better than the wrong decision. Feeling stress and anxiety when there doesn’t appear to be a logical right and wrong option.
New belief: Most decisions only have an ‘a’ and ‘b’, not a right and wrong. The worst decision I can make is inaction. I can and will deal with the consequences of decisions, even unfavourable ones.
Self-limiting belief: When things don’t happen immediately, that’s a sign that they’re not going to work out. I should cut my losses and move on.
How it might make me behave: Desire to quit when I don’t see immediate results. Lack of motivation/momentum when not seeing proof of progress.
New belief: Things take time and require patience. Often a critical threshold needs to be reached before I’ll see demonstrable progress. I give myself the best chance of succeeding by sticking with the plan and continually using feedback to learn/improve/adjust.
Doing this requires a bit of a deep dive into your psyche (and necessitates putting your ego aside for an hour or so!) It can be unpleasant to face these beliefs on paper because it means acknowledging our flaws, but by doing it you get an incredible insight into why you react in certain ways to certain situations, sometimes seemingly in the face of logic and at the detriment to yourself.
As you can see from the examples, my self-limiting beliefs may lead me to put others first (at the expense of my own wellbeing), go into a stressful ‘analysis paralysis’ mode when it comes to decision making, and having the desire to give up on projects when I don’t see immediate results. Knowing that these beliefs are part of my narrative help me understand why some habits are hard for me to sustain—for example, my inclination would be to cancel my own plans for exercise or headspace if it meant doing some other activity that would benefit someone else. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but you can see how it isn’t always in my best interests to put others first, especially if it means sacrificing something that’s important to me.
I have a whole spreadsheet of these, from a number of different areas of my life, and sometimes just knowing why I have a predisposition to react in a certain way can help give me the choice to accept a more rational train of thought. Most people will also have their own unique selection of self-limiting beliefs and addressing them first may be the key to unlocking behavioural change.
Remember, these aren’t conscious thoughts, so it can be embarrassing to realise we even have them as beliefs. Giving yourself permission to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge and deal with them is a huge step towards ultimately shifting towards a more rational narrative.
Making positive changes to your life isn’t easy (and anyone who claims it to be is delusional), but it doesn’t have to be a constant struggle either. Most downfall comes from trying to convince ourselves to postpone starting until some future date, or by focusing too much on outcomes or an image of personal perfection that we’ll never attain. The good news is that being honest with yourself about why you’re struggling gives insight into how you can effectively hack your own narrative, changing your belief system to work in your favour.