Resolutions to results: 12 strategies for sticking to habits

We are approaching that time of year where everyone is resolving to eat healthier, exercise more, read widely, meditate daily, reduce their coffee addiction, lessen their social media addiction, or spend more time with loved ones. It’s New Year’s Resolution time.

The research shows us that 25% of people abandon their NY’s resolutions within one week. 60% of people abandon them within 6 months. And the average person makes the same NY’s resolution 10 times without success.

Looking specifically at health related resolutions – 95% of people who lose weight on a diet regain it, with a significant proportion end up even heavier then they were pre-diet. And even after a heart attack, only 1 in 7 patients makes any enduring changes to lifestyle.Goals

Clearly, the traditional approach of making a resolution and relying on willpower to implement it, is not working.

I recently gave a presentation on 12 strategies for sticking to new habits, and I’d like to share a summarized version of the content with you on this blog post.

These strategies will work for any type of resolution. I wanted to kick my chocolate addiction, some people in the presentation wanted to lose weight, run regularly, quit smoking or even add business development activities to their routines.

Not every strategy will resonate with you – they are not intended to. Choose the 3-6 strategies that suit you best and you will be well equipped to make lasting changes in your life – not just a resolution that you’ll have to make again next year because you couldn’t stick to it.

Let’s dive into it.


1. Watch your language

And I’m not talking about swear words here! You want to phrase your goal in emotive language to make it more meaningful and motivating. Personally I think that ‘should’ is the most demotivating word in the English language. Saying ‘I should lose weight’ inspires about as much motivation as saying ‘I should pay my taxes’.

Instead of phrasing your resolutions as to-do lists, use language that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning. If we take the losing weight example, what if you were use language like: ‘I want to turn heads when I walk down the beach’ or ‘I want my husband to be unable to keep his hands off my sexy body’? Just a little more exciting!

On the subject of language, your resolution should also follow the normal rules for goals – it needs to be both specific and have a deadline. The person in our example might add these to her goal by saying ‘I want to lose 10kg by June 1st so that when I walk down the beach people can’t take their eyes off me’. While this maintains the use of emotive language, it adds specificity (10kg) and a deadline (June 1st).


2. Walk before you run

It was Lao Tzu who said that ‘The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step’. Often people fail with their resolutions because they either a) make wholesale changes in their life that they are unable to maintain or b) are too intimidated to start making changes because it seems insurmountable to turn their life around so drastically.

This strategy is about making your first step so tiny you are 100% guaranteed to make it happen. If you want to lose weight you might start by leaving one mouthful of food on your plate at the end of dinner. If you want to start reading you might read just 1 page of a book. If you want to meditate you might do just 2 minutes.

It may not seem like tiny actions such as these will have any real impact on your life but we need to account for two effects:

The momentum effect: It is much easier to stick to your resolution if you already have a number of successful days behind you. For me, not eating chocolate is much easier if I already have 20 days of not eating chocolate behind me. I don’t want to ruin my perfect record. A small action repeated daily is far more likely to stick in your life if it is a small change compared to a drastic one.

The snowball effect: While initially this strategy is about taking a tiny step, over time the intention is to gradually increase your commitment to your resolution. With my chocolate example I might start by replacing milk chocolate with dark chocolate, then next month I could stop eating chocolate after dinner, then the next month cut out hot chocolate. If you improve just 1% each day within a year you will be 38% better.

There is an incredible story of a nun called Madonna Buder. She took up running at the age of 48 and at first she could only jog 1 block. The next day she ran 2 blocks. The next day 3. Until at age 55 she completed her first Ironman – a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile (42.2 km) run, raced in that order and without a break. Since then she has completed 35 Ironman races and she is now in her 80s and still going. And it all started with a run to the corner of her block.

So what is the first, tiny step, you can take today?


3. Get emotional leverage

This strategy is about building motivation using emotions. Emotional leverage refers to the phenomenon where knowing change is required is not nearly as impactful in creating change as feeling the emotions associated with that change.

As an example consider a father trying to give up smoking. Intellectually he knows that it is bad for him. He knows that it makes him cough when he tries to exercise. That it will lead to lung cancer, and gum disease and a whole host of other problems. But the intellectual knowledge doesn’t provide enough motivation to make him quit permanently.

But what if his young daughter were to come up to him crying uncontrollably while he was smoking. And she said to him ‘You’re going to die daddy! I love you and I don’t want you to leave me. You’re going to miss my school play. And my graduation. And my wedding. You’ll be dead if you keep smoking.’ Then the next time he goes to light up what do you think he will picture? His daughter, all grown up, and walking down the aisle at her wedding. Alone.

That’s emotional leverage.

There are two types of emotional leverage – positive and negative. The story above is an example of negative emotional leverage. The father was feeling the pain of not quitting smoking and being unable to walk his daughter down the aisle. Positive emotional leverage would be him picturing and feeling all the positive emotions associated with giving up smoking. Playing with his grandchildren in 20 years time. Having the energy to go running with his wife. Being looked up to as a healthy role model by his kids etc.

To implement this strategy start by imagining, and feeling the emotions, of all the horrible consequences of not implementing your resolution. Think really long term. Then do the opposite – imagine and feel what your life would be like if you were to make this change in your life. Get your family and friends describe in detail to you the impact your resolution would have on their life for even more emotional leverage.


4. The carrot and the stick

This strategy is pretty obvious. The carrot = rewards and the stick = punishments. There is a lot of research out there saying how much better it is to be intrinsically motivated (your motivation comes from your own drives and passions) rather than extrinsically motivated (motivation comes from external factors like salary, bonuses, getting fired, being punished etc.

However, while I agree with this in general, the carrot and the stick are a classic management tool for a reason – they work. And they work even better when you design your own rewards and punishments.

There are really only two rules with this:

Go big or go home: There is no point having a medicore reward that doesn’t get you excited, or a punishment that doesn’t make you tremble in fear. One woman in the seminar I presented wanted to lose weight. Her punishment if she didn’t meet her goal was to walk a mile through downtown Los Angeles wearing nothing but a bikini and high heels – with a friend present to take as many embarrassing photos as they liked. Her reward was a new car for herself. Think crazy big.

Enforce it: Make sure you have a friend or family member (one who believes in tough love) to hold you to your rewards and punishments. Interestingly people are worse at following through on rewards for themselves than they are punishments. If you said you’d go on a trip to Bali when you achieved your goal give your friend your credit card details so they book the flights for you. If your punishment was to donate to a political party you hate write the check in advance and give it to your friend to post if you fail.


5. Be accountable

This strategy takes advantage of the fact that humans are far better at following through on promises to other people, than we are promises to ourselves.

The classic example is the snooze button. On work days you may hit snooze a couple of times but you’ve promised your boss that you’ll be at work by 9am so you make it happen. Friday night comes and you promise yourself you’ll get up early and go for a run in the morning. But it is much easier on Saturday morning to just keep hitting snooze until you forget about that run completely. After all, you’re only breaking a promise to yourself.

Pick someone that you respect and admire, someone that you would do almost anything not to disappoint. Tell them your goals and check in with them on a regular schedule. A life coach, mentor, manager, trainer or just someone you deeply admire all work well.


6. Raise your standards

Standards are the way you do things. If you’ve ever heard the saying that your income is the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with then that is an example of standards. A good way to identify your standards is to think about what is the minimum level you would accept from yourself. How messy do you let your room get before you tidy it? What’s the minimum number of workouts you’d do per week? The most you’d let yourself drink before switching to water? The minimum number of times you’d proofread a document before submitting it to your boss?

The interesting thing about standards is that they are very difficult to change on your own. Because standards are a result of your environment, the only real way to change them is to change your environment.

As a sporting example, I used to play beach volleyball a few times a week with guys. They hit the ball harder, their shots are better, they run faster. All of which forced me to get better at defense in order to compete. By training with guys I raised my standards.

To implement this strategy you simply need to start spending your time with people who have already achieved what you want to. If you want to eat healthier go for lunch with the people that like salad. If you want to be fitter hang out at the gym. If you want to make more money spend time with wealthy people. Raise your standards by changing your environment.


7. Replace lost needs

When trying to change a habit, you can’t just cut it out of your life completely. It obviously meets some of your psychological needs or it wouldn’t have become a pattern of behavior in the first place. I find the best model of needs is the one developed by Tony Robbins called ‘The 6 Human Needs’ – with the 6 needs being certainty, uncertainty/variety, recognition, love/connection, growth, contribution.

Take my chocolate addiction. It meets almost all of the 6 human needs in his model:

  • Certainty. Chocolate will always be there for me. I know that certain brands will always taste the same. It will give me the same feeling of contentment and deliciousness when I eat it.
  • Uncertainty/variety. There are so many different flavours and types of chocolate to try.
  • Recognition. I am known as a chocolate addict. Among my friends and acquaintances I get recognition for how much chocolate I can eat.
  • Love/connection. Given as a gift chocolate creates connections. It’s a conversation starter. And when I eat it I have a quiet moment of connecting with myself.
  • Growth. Chocolate doesn’t really meet this psychological need – although it will certainly make me grow outwards if I eat too much!
  • Contribution. I love making gooey chocolate puddings for people. It makes their lives a little more enjoyable and gives me a sense of contribution.

Robbins says that if a behavior meets three or more needs than it becomes an addiction, or a habit. Since chocolate meets five needs for me no wonder I’m finding it hard to give up.

The easiest way to change a habit it to replace it with another behavior (or multiple behaviors) that meets the same needs, just in a different way. It doesn’t matter how your needs are met, just that they are met to the same degree.


8. Use your community

Who hates working out alone? Or eating alone? Or driving alone? How much more likely are you to commit and stick to something if you are doing it with other people?

This strategy is simple, it’s about doing things together, rather than alone. Having a partner or a community works in three ways:

  • You hold each other accountable to your goals
  • You push each other to even greater achievements with friendly competition
  • You support each other through the tough times


9. Eliminate decision fatigue

Willpower, and decision making, takes mental energy. Tim Ferriss explains this in detail in a blog post titled ‘Choice Minimal Lifestyle’. He outlines experiments conducted at Florida State University in which they asked a group of students to make choices between a variety of household items. A control group considered the same group of items but weren’t asked to make any decisions.

Individuals in both groups were then subjected to a classic test of will-power – how long they can hold their hand in a bucket of ice cold water. Those students who considered the items without deciding held their hand in the icy water for an average of 67 seconds. The students that made the decisions only lasted 28 seconds on average.

The effect is known as decision fatigue. Basically you may not feel tired, but your brain gets fatigued after making decisions. When it’s tired will-power is sapped, and your ability to make rational decisions is diminished.

There are some famous examples of the decision fatigue phenomenon in action. President Obama only wears blue or grey suits, and for the first term of his presidency he and his wife implemented a ‘no new friends’ rule. Judges tend to give harsher sentences towards the end of the day. And Tim Ferriss himself basically eats the same thing every breakfast and lunch to save up his decision making power for things more important than food.

Implement this strategy by finding ways to reduce the many small decisions you make each day. Unsubscribe from email newsletters so you don’t have to decide whether to read them or delete them. Do all your meal planning and shopping on a Sunday so you don’t have to think about food during the week. Put your clothes out the night before so you don’t have to decide what to wear in the morning. Have a coach write your workout program for you so you don’t have to think about what to do in the gym.

These are simple things but they will sky-rocket the will-power you have available for implementing your resolution.


10. Remove temptation

I’m sure you’ve heard, or given, the advice to someone embarking on a diet to ‘just throw away all the junk food in your kitchen’. The idea is a simple one, if the food isn’t there to tempt you then you won’t eat it.

In order to effectively implement this strategy you need to be aware of two things – your environmental triggers, and your ‘Pringles’ items.

Environmental triggers are the things in your environment that cause you to slip into old, unwanted behaviors. Similar to seeing the ice-cream in the freezer and immediately diving in. Triggers could range from when you pick up your phone you automatically check social media, to when you turn on your computer you naturally open your email first, to when you go for coffee with work mates you can’t help but order one too, to when your alarm goes off you hurriedly reach for the snooze button.

You need to remove these triggers from your environment – delete Facebook from your phone, plan your day with pen and paper when you get to the office before turning your computer on, get rid of the ice-cream, make tea in the kitchen at work rather going on coffee runs with colleagues and put your alarm across the other side of the room.

‘Pringle’ items are the things that you either 0% or 100% on. Like the Pringles ad which sings ‘once you pop you cant stop’, what things do you have no self-control over? If you take a short nap does it turn into two hours? If you have one square of chocolate do you eat the whole block (I do!), if you open Instagram do you spend 30 minutes scrolling through your feed?

Your ‘Pringle’ items are also the things you have to remove from your life in order for this strategy to work and for your resolutions to become real.


11. Link the new to the old

This strategy is about linking your new behaviors, to existing routines and habits.

Your brain is made up of millions of connected neurons (nerve cells). When you do an action or think a thought for the first time, a new pathway of neurons lights up in your mind.

You can think of this new pathway as footprints in the sand. It’s a pretty indistinct neural pathway, and can easily be brushed aside by wind or other footsteps. Once you take that action a few more times your neural pathway becomes more like regular path that feels natural to stay on. Do the action a few hundred more times and you have a paved walkway with railings. Do it a million times and you have a Grand Canyon neural pathway in your mind. You don’t even have to think anymore – there is only one path to take. Changing would take the equivalent mental effort of hiking 10 miles uphill to get out of the Grand Canyon.

In order to implement your new resolution, you can tack on a part of your new behavior onto an existing routine – thereby making use of existing neural pathways. Examples of this include:

  • Brush your teeth as soon as you put your knife and fork down at the end of dinner – then you won’t be tempted to snack later
  • When you walk in the front door the first thing you do is give your partner a hug
  • Every morning when you have your coffee take your vitamin pills
  • When watch TV get your foam roller out and stretch
  • And I’ve even heard of one guy who did pushups every time he went to the bathroom!


12. Plan to fail

I came across the following quote and think it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of this strategy.

“Dear diet, it’s just not going to work out between us. It’s not you, it’s me. I can’t seem to stop cheating on you.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said ‘I’m never eating chocolate again’. Within 3 days someone offers me a chocolate chip muffin. They baked it from scratch. I wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings so of course I eat it. Then the next day you put Nutella on your toast. ‘Technically it’s made from Hazelnuts’ you tell yourself, ‘so it’s not really chocolate’. Once you fail just a little bit on your new resolution it becomes a snowball effect. You just cheat more and more until you are right back where you started at the bottom of the mountain (or in my case in the candy aisle of the supermarket deciding between Lindt truffles and KitKats – and getting both).

The way to avoid this is to plan to fail. Schedule in your ‘cheat days’, or have a set number of slip ups you’ll allow yourself. That way one tiny failure doesn’t mean you give up on your resolution entirely. The real failure is in giving up completely, not failing to have the willpower to say no to a piece of pudding at Christmas.

Make a calendar and plan out the days you are definitely going to cheat. Look forward to those days and anticipate the joy you’ll have during them. It will make sticking to your resolution easier on the other days.

You should also permit yourself a certain number of un-planned slip ups. Make sure you have a way to get yourself back on track however after one of these unexpected deviations from your resolution. You might go for a 30min run after you slip up and have a chocolate bar, or donate to a charity if you accidently go on a shopping spree, or call the person you are accountable to (strategy 5) for a reset in motivation, or do 100 pushups if you hit snooze and don’t make it to the gym.

Little failures are not a big deal. Giving up on your resolution completely is. Don’t be one of those people who has to make the same resolution again next year because you made no progress this year.


That’s it. 12 strategies for turning your resolutions into real results this year. Remember not every strategy suits every person – but implementing just a few will transform you from one of those people who makes half hearted resolutions and doesn’t follow through, to someone who sees transformative changes in their life.

November 22, 2015