Do people even make New Year’s resolutions anymore? I used to teach workshops about making sustainable, positive change in our lives, and I’d always start them out asking for a show of hands of people who regularly have a New Year’s resolution. Without fail, only about 5-10% of attendants would raise their hand. When I’d ask how many people kept their resolutions, only a handful ever kept their hand raised.
Now here’s another question – how many people brush their teeth at least once a day? I typically get a lot more raised hands for this question. But why is it that we have no problem keeping up a mundane task like brushing our teeth, and yet when we try to take up life changing habits like exercising or mindfulness practice, we can’t keep it up?
The problem with New Year’s resolutions is our resolve, or lack of it. Will power is an extremely scarce resource (source). It doesn’t take much time after New Year’s for us to run out of it, and then we’re right back to square one.
So how can we make sustainable change in our lives? Recall your relatively clean teeth. Brushing your teeth for most people is a daily ritual. Typically, no will power is needed for us to complete this chore. It has become automatic.
The trick to making positive change in our lives is to make that change automatic by turning it into a ritual, just like brushing our teeth. How can we do this? Here’s some of the tips we gave in the workshops I taught:
Be highly precise - What specific actions can you take in order to to achieve the change you want? What day and time will you take those actions? Keep in mind that it’s not possible to do a don’t. In other words ‘eat more spinach’ is a more viable ritual than ‘don’t eat cookies.’
Expect and plan for resistance - I’m always looking for excuses to not keep up with new rituals. Plan for this. If you miss your exercise routine on Tuesday, how and when will you make up for it?
Balance - You don’t want to take on too much, but you also don’t want to take on too little. If your goal is to lose weight, eating one less candy bar a month probably won’t help much, but three less per week might.
Enlist the support of others – Tell everyone about your new ritual; this will create a sense of accountability. Better yet, find a close friend to give regular status updates about your development; support them in their new rituals too!
Here’s an example of what I believe to be an effective ritual:Every Tuesday and Friday I will practice my Daily Zen from 10:30 to 10:40am (Learn more about the Daily Zen in our Online Academy!). If I can’t practice at 10:30, I’ll try again at 2:30pm, and if I can’t practice that day, I’ll practice the next instead. I’ll tell my coworkers about my practice and see if I can get at least one to join me. If I can’t, then I’ll tell my manager that this is something that I’m working on, and request that he/she check in with me about it every so often.
This might seem like overkill, but I’d bet that once you start your ritual you’ll be happy you made it so precise.
So this year, instead of making a New Year’s resolution, try instead to make a New Year’s ritual. We’d love to hear about your rituals! Post them in the comments section below and let’s all try to keep each other honest.