Nothing but the strength of your convictions can keep a self-improvement promise going for at least 365 days. You can, however, boost your chance at success and outwit your worst habits with some motivational devices and clever thinking.
Image from Monina Velarde's New Year's Resolution Generator.
10. Roll 12 habits into one resolution
Blogger John Richardson believes in the power of habits, the kind that your mind can subconsciously stick to after 21 days of reinforcement. Rather than make some over-reaching resolution like "Be better about spending", he crafted 12 different specific micro-habits to act upon in 2006, one for each month. The original link is lost to a Wordpress re-design and site migration, it appears, but as Gina noted, by making those resolutions specific and measurable — drinking two quarts of water per day instead of "drink more water" — you can also track them, as covered below, and combine them into one big life-improving resolution.
9. Distract yourself at the moment of temptation
It seems cruel, but researchers have learned a lot from tempting kids with an immediate sugary treat versus a more substantial treat if they wait it out. What did the kids who successfully avoided eating marshmallows right away have in common? According to NPR's story on The Marshmallow Test, they distracted themselves whenever the lure of the fluffy white puffs became too strong — twirling their hair, counting to some random number, singing a song. Anything that got their mind off what it was consciously trying to avoid worked better than just torturing themselves over it, and we adults can probably learn a thing or two from those exercises. What better reason, really, to keep an engaging, entertaining game handy on your mobile phone for immediate playing whenever temptation strikes? (Original post)
8. Create a reminder network
Before an action you want to do every day becomes a real habit, something you do without thinking and mindlessly benefit from, it requires a lot of reminders and dragging yourself to do it. To get there, learning trainer Dr. Stephanie Burns suggests setting up external triggers and reminders. Not just sticky notes on the bathroom mirror (though those can help), but a whole multimedia onslaught of conscious-mind triggers: clock alarms, devoted friends who call at the same time every day, rubber bands, locks on the cupboard containing the too-hard-to-resist treats, and so forth. Once you get use to doing the same thing, in the same place, in the same surroundings, you'll have the efficiency of a self-winding wristwatch. Until then, it takes a stage director's skill to set up an entire world of nag-y reminders. Photo by Haundreis.
7. Pick only one actual resolution
The part of your brain that willpower stems from, the prefrontal cortex, is just behind your forehead. Like any other tissue in your body, it has its limitations, and overloading it with short-term memory tasks, stress management, and five or six different day-to-day resolutions is just too much. It's best explained in the scientific studies highlighted by the Wall Street Journal, in a piece on the science behind failed resolutions:
In a 2002 experiment, led by Mark Muraven at the University at Albany, a group of male subjects was asked to not think about a white elephant for five minutes while writing down their thoughts. That turns out to be a rather difficult mental challenge, akin to staying focused on a tedious project at work. (A control group was given a few simple arithmetic problems to solve.) Then, Mr. Muraven had the subjects take a beer taste test, although he warned them that their next task involved driving a car. Sure enough, people in the white elephant group drank significantly more beer than people in the control group, which suggests that they had a harder time not indulging in alcohol.
... When we ask the brain to suddenly stop eating its favourite foods and focus more at work and pay off the Visa…we're probably asking for too much.
Yep — one seriously taxing resolution is the probably the most you should fight for, given that your brain is constantly failing in an attempt to fight off drunken white elephants trying to get into your thoughts. Or something along those lines — we forgot already.
6. Use a timer
This year, you've sworn to anyone who'll listen that your office will stay clean. All it really takes, you figure, is about 5-10 minutes of pick-up every day, if that. Those minutes aren't coming on an engraved invitation every day, though — you have to carve them out yourself. Do what productive dude Merlin Mann did: set a timer and just crank on it. Nothing is all that awful if you know you can wander away from it in 10 minutes, and there's something about the no-nonsense nature of a physical kitchen-style timer or stopwatch that makes it harder to ignore than a little screen icon. Get good at doing whatever you're doing, and you eventually might not even need it.
5. Utilise public shame
Notable funny guy and Deadspin blogger Drew Magary has to lose 20kg to deal with back pain. How's he getting there? Eating and drinking less, actually, but also through posting his weight every day in what he's calling the Twitter Public Humiliation Diet. Maybe his followers aren't calling him out every single day that he doesn't make progress, but having committed to publicly fessing up to his weight is more direct and persuasive than a background thought about long-term health. Geek singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton took on a similar task with his Thing A Week project, knowing that if his fans were waiting for new content every week and he didn't deliver, it'd be humiliating on a wider scale than just missing a personal deadline. Don't have a fanbase waiting to see you fall? Try telling your mum, or your wife, or the best friend who's not afraid to give you crap, about this new thing you're doing — you will not want to let them down. Photo by a2gemma.
4. Make it into a geeky data game
The downward-sloping curve of your weight, the upward-sloping curve of your savings — for some folks, visual cues to success are understandably addictive and motivating. Lifehacker alumnus Kyle Pott used personal finance site Mint.com to get control of his fancy coffee spending, and Gina showed us how graphing your life with webapps can tame big stuff like budgets and small stuff like soda addictions.
3. Conquer huge backlogs with a DMZ or half-life approach
Want to clear out your inbox for the new year and keep it that way? Good idea, but what about the 1438 items that are staring at you, just daring you to try and "process" them? Do what an out-of-time university kid does when the parents are visiting — create a "DMZ" space (demilitarised zone), and shove it all in there, heading back to it when you need to grab something or have the proper time set aside to really crank on replies/deletions/archiving. Can't bear the thought of misplacing a crucial message? Follow Jason Clarke's Inbox 0.5 approach, shelving half of your emails today, another half tomorrow, and so on, until you've stashed and sorted all your mail in its proper place without declaring email bankruptcy.
2. Set up a scheduled review
It's all too easy to lose track of your goals if you have no idea how much you've succeeded, or slipped, as time goes by. The weekly review method that's an essential piece of the Getting Things Done methodology is meant for tracking productivity goals, but getting into the weekly review habit is a good idea for any resolution you make. If you prefer a more intense, and far more old-school approach, try Benjamin Franklin's personal daily goal tracker, which can be modified to fit your non-18th-century needs.
1. Think progress, not perfection
You are not Vulcan, Cylon or any other science-fiction race that has perfect, programmatic willpower. You are human, and you will, inevitably, give into your cravings, whether on special occasions or when faced with gourmet tiramisu. When you do, don't consider your resolution failed, but consider that any massive change will have setbacks and mistakes. As they say, moderation in all things — including moderation. If food is your particular vice, we've found foodie and Lifehacker reader Sally's thoughts on low-fat eating to be inspiring. It's not what you eat, but the spirit in which you eat it. Same goes for most anything you promise yourself, really. Photo by cherryjet.
What mental notes, tricks, or other hacks have you utilised in getting yourself to stick to something that's better for you? We can all use some inspiring advice and success stories in the comments — quickly, please, before the frappuccino urge sets in.