Chances are that you’ve either given up on your New Year’s resolutions or will do so before the end of January. Here’s what to do next.
Firstly, don’t be too hard on yourself. No matter how inspired you were at New Year, the reality is that Future-you was always going to be so busy reacting to life, they just wouldn’t have the energy to change it.
It’s not just about New Year, although that’s when the gap between your aspiration and reality is at it’s most stark. The general principle here is that when you’re planning to change yourself, assume that Future-you is going to fail and give up on your commitments.
Embracing this reality means that instead of primarily focusing on changing yourself, you can prioritise the more realistic goals of changing everything around you instead.
1. Change your environment
Consider what environment would support Future-you to make more positive decisions and less negative ones.
- Trying to read more books and watch less TV? Put your TV in a lockable cupboard that has to be moved into place. Meanwhile, set up an inviting reading chair with a range of page-turners readily at hand.
- Trying to exercise more? Put the exercise bike or treadmill in the middle of the room, or even in front of the TV.
- Want to spend less time on the internet? Most internet routers have the ability to set times the internet is turned on and off. Similarly, Apple’s Screen Time presents new options for self-imposed control.
- Want to eat healthily? Leave carrot sticks, nuts, water and healthy snacks in easy reach and in highly visible places in your fridge and house. Meanwhile, put the coffee and unhealthy snacks deep at the back of cupboards.
Put simply, shape the environment around you to make the life you desire as easy, supported, and obvious as possible. Of course, the same principle applies in reverse – you can also shape your environment to bury the life you’re trying to leave behind with barriers and obstacles.
2. Change your schedule
Redesigning your schedule and process can begin by hacking customer journey map processes like this one or this one. Rather than customers buying a product or service, your personal version will focus on your daily experience.
This will include mapping your ‘pain’ and ‘gain’ points in relation to your desired behavioural change with the aim of identifying opportunities to alter your schedule and positively nudge your behaviour.
What are your pain points? Do you buy a coffee and a muffin from a regular cafe as you walk to work each day? Do you smoke after dinner?
Once such habits are identified, there are two possible focuses for improvement. The first is to change your routine or activity; the second is removing or changing the event that triggers the habit. For now, we’ll focus on the latter.
By their nature, triggering events tend to be out of your control. Most commonly they’re external factors that just happen. However, don’t assume you can’t impact them.
- Get off at a different bus stop so you don’t have to walk past your favourite cafe where your usual coffee and muffins are calling out to you.
- Sit somewhere different or eat dinner earlier to break your association with smoking after a meal.
Another consideration in relation to your schedule is working to reduce ‘low-return’ decision points. This has been highlighted by the likes of President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg who reduce decisions around clothes to save their cognitive power for more ‘high value’ areas. This is important because your level of decision-making has been shown to sap willpower – so use expend it carefully.
The point here is to tweak your schedule and process to help break existing associations and habits or make new ones the easiest choice. It’s also about reducing effort and decisions in your day so you can save your energy for important choices.
3. Change your network
“You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn.
You’ve probably heard this reminder of the influence of the people around you. In these days of social media, the impact is broadened and amplified.
One of the most significant studies in this area found, not surprisingly, that peer and social network strategies positively impact on attempts to quit smoking and reduce weight.
This can be an intimidating area to change, so start with these three questions:
- What sort of life and change am I striving for?
- Who in my extended network (including friends of friends) have achieved this or are making strong headway in the area?
- How can I lock in regular times and opportunities to expose myself to their influence?
This might lead you to clean out your social media accounts – unfollowing some and forging new contacts with more positive role models. Closer to home, it might involve:
- Scheduling regular catch ups with people who you want in your life;
- Organising a regular jog with a motivated friend; or
- Initiating a monthly meet-up group on a topic you want to embrace.
Don’t know the right people? Look to your broader networks – actively search and ask for recommendations.
By the same token, consider who in your network will push Future-you into old and undesirable patterns and, where possible, consider strategies to limit their impact.
4. Change your tools & systems
Tools and systems can provide a daily scaffold for the decisions you want Future-you to make.
For example, your smartphone might currently be the source of many of your challenges – with social media and open access to instant internet gratification – but it can also support Future-you to embed change.
Two key factors related to smartphones are notifications and how you use your phone’s home screen.
Firstly, turn off active notifications for apps that don’t support Future-you to make positive decisions (yes, that will likely include your social media apps). Deleting them is better but turning off notifications is a great start.
According to one study, we look at our phones about 80 times each day – so how can you use this to your advantage?
Consciously design your home screen to prioritise apps and messages that reinforce positive behaviour. This might include apps that help you develop habits; provide reminders; learn a language; reduce your alcohol consumption; track your fitness or anything.
There literally is an app for everything, so set up Future-you to use them for goodness instead of evil.
Beyond your phone, consider what other tools or systems Future-you can leverage? For example:
- Set up your desktop computer to automatically open the applications you want to use and bury other apps in folders.
- Set up part of your pay to go into a different bank account that’s difficult for Future-you to access.
- Use Google Home or Alexa to provide regular reminders or take consistent actions from calling family, initiate a workout, or prompting Future-you to take breaks.
- Or a low-tech example: only use small bowls and spoons in your kitchen to support you eating smaller portions, or miniature wine glasses to help cut down on your wine intake.
5. Change feedback loops & accountability
One of the reasons Future-you will struggle with change is ‘hyperbolic discounting’. A key principle of behavioural economics, hyperbolic discounting essentially states that we will tend to embrace immediate rewards over delayed ones.
The challenge for many resolutions is that their pay off is distant and often abstract. ‘Getting healthy and living longer’, ‘live with less financial stress’ won’t grab Future-you’s attention on a day-to-day basis.
The challenge then is to look for ways to provide immediate feedback, reward and/or accountability for Future-you.
- Using fitness wearables and trackers to provide constant and immediate feedback on steps and exercise.
- Leverage your network to hold Future-you to account, providing daily or weekly report backs on key goals to your network.
- Use sites like Stickk to give your decisions real implications and accountability, in Stickk’s case using loss aversion where Future-you might donate your hard-won cash to an organisation or cause that you detest if your goal is not met.
- Use the ‘don’t break the chain’ method made famous by Jerry Seinfeld. This method provides visual and daily feedback with simple loss aversion (not breaking the chain) to maintain behaviour. Future-you crosses out a day on a calendar for each successful day of implementing a commitment, the aim is to get as many crosses in a row.
6. Change your habits
Many of the points mentioned above feed into effective habit formation. Indeed the process of understanding the cue-routine-reward loop that drives much of our daily behaviour is key to lasting change.
There has been great work done in this area from B.J. Fogg, Charles Duhigg, and most recently by James Clear. You really should delve into each for impactful strategies, but here are some key takeaways:
- Identify or schedule in triggers and cues for the desired behaviour.
- Make the desired behaviour as simple and easy as possible by moving barriers or ‘reducing friction’.
- Add barriers to other undesirable choices.
- Provide feedback loops with quick payoff and/or consequences.
After decades of supporting organisational-wide learning and change programs, it is my considered opinion that sustained behavioural change is bloody hard!
Sure, we humans are thinking conscious beings. However, for the most part, our brains are on automatic – conserving energy with shortcuts, assumptions and habits.
Embrace this. Assume that Future-you will likely let you down. Don’t blame them, help them! Use the strategies I’ve outlined above to redefine your future, without expecting Future-you to do all the heavy lifting.
Please throw me some claps and share this article with anyone who might be interested. And please let me how you go in the comments.
This article was first published on 8th Jan 2019 on medium.com here.
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