New Year resolutions - The secret of changing behaviour – take tiny steps

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Published by
Jan Hills
January 12, 2017

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How to succeed at you New Year Resolutions.

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It is that time of year again when we can start afresh. New Year gives us the impetus to put aside the old and start something new. This is most often seen in a New Year resolution; those promises we make to ourselves about the new behaviours we will adopt for the coming months.

The strategy most people adopt is to struggle, sacrifice and be tough minded; using all our willpower to stop one behaviour and start another. Whether that’s giving up sugar, wine or some other vice or starting exercise, study or healthy eating. Of course at work it is no different. Resolutions happen there too; from leaving on time to connecting with the team more, to clearing the email in-box.

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The trouble with using willpower is that we as humans are not really built for it. 

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The trouble with using willpower is that we as humans are not really built for it. Thinking about stopping behaviour only increases the networks in the brain that reinforce the old habit. It is much easier to start something new and to let the old habit wither away. And willpower is weak in the face of embedded habits as it takes a lot of brain energy. Willpower is also prone to fail when depleted by stress, when we are tired or hungry.

Embedding new habits can be tough to do. Some research which is intriguing, and I have found works is the work of B J Fogg at Stanford. His research on tiny habits may be useful to you too as you plan your resolutions. Planning is important in the approach, just stating on New Year’s Eve what you intend will never be enough.

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You start doing something small that becomes a habit. 

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Fogg calls the approach ‘Tiny habits’. You start doing something small that becomes a habit. The method is to make a clear statement of the new behaviour you want. State the cue, the thing that will remind you to undertake the new behaviour and the behaviour itself. So for example ‘After I clean my teeth I will floss one tooth’. The trick is to make the new behaviour tiny. I mean really tiny. Another example might be ‘Once I open my email I will clear the first three emails in the box’. The cue must be something you already do, like clean your teeth or open your email app.

My experience is that the cue is really important. It needs to be deeply rooted, something you always do, and it needs to trigger you to remember to do the new habit. Fogg also recommends you set things up to make it easy for yourself. So for example if you are going to start flossing your tooth have the floss in sight on the bathroom shelf, if it is practicing your piano cords pick a cue that is near the piano so you don’t get distracted moving from one room to another. If it’s talking to your team each day pick a time and preceding activity that you know you will always be doing. Like straight after you take your coat off.

What seems to happen, at least this was my experience, is the smallness of the new behaviour prevents you from making up excuses about why you can’t do it and once you start doing it you are so pleased with yourself that you extend the behaviour; one tooth become the whole mouth. You think “why not I have the floss in my hand”. Talking to one team members becomes a second and soon you have covered the whole team.  And if you do only carry out the one tooth floss there is no failure. You have done what you promised yourself.

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The final part of the method is to give yourself a mental high five or pat on the back when you have carried out the new behaviour. Say ‘well done’ or whatever.

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The final part of the method is to give yourself a mental high five or pat on the back when you have carried out the new behaviour. Say ‘well done’ or whatever. This produces a shot of dopamine in the brain and makes you feel good, encouraging you to do the activity again to get the mental reward.

Part of the advice is also to experiment with getting the cue and the routine just right, its important not to give up just because you slipped up on one day. in other words give yourself a break and reset. Try it you may surprise yourself and within a few days be routinely doing that exercise, flossing or have an empty inbox.

 

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