It’s that time of year again. As New Year’s Eve creeps closer millions of people all around the world start making unrealistic promises to themselves. We’ve all been there. We count down the last hours of the closing year and reflect on our lives. We start to look longingly at the year ahead. A clean slate and fresh start to improve ourselves and change things.
- This will be the year I learn French.
- I'll go to the gym 4 times a week.
- I'll read a new book every week.
- I'll kick-off a personal blog.
- I'll eat healthier.
And so on and so forth.
Fast forward a few months (or even a week) and we’re are as close to reaching our zealous objectives as Donald Trump is to becoming President of the United States. Ok, bad example.
No, what generally happens is that by the end of January we’ve either watched our promises wilt away or we’ve rationalized them down to an irrelevant minimum. So why do we keep making New Year resolutions? I say: Forget resolutions, make rules instead!
Why resolutions fail
New resolutions tend to fail because we already have family responsibilities. We already have to deliver results in the workplace. We’re already trying to balance our career with a happy private life. Plus, despite our best efforts, we do need to rest and veg out on the couch once in a while. And we need laugh and grab a drink with our friends too, but there are only 24 hours a day. Once the holidays are over and the busy schedules rev up again, we have to decide how to prioritize our tasks and falling back into our pre-established grooves is a nearly insuppressible force.
Furthermore, cutting the time we spend on our jobs, our relationships or our friendships might get us fired, single and lonely. On the other hand, putting our New Year’s resolution on hold for a few weeks will keep our daily life unscathed. Thus, it’s only natural that most people decide to push their new resolutions to the bottom of the to-do list when time becomes scarce.
Why rules beat habits
Rules on the other hand are much more effective than simple promises or deadset resolutions because they’re the first step to creating new habits, or breaking out of old ones. Habits are the actual holy grail of reaching your best self. Once you’ve got them, you’re running on autopilot. You won’t even notice that you’re practicing French again. The gym will become a craving, not a chore. You’ll find yourself completing tasks faster to get back to your book. Most importantly, you won’t be cursing yourself in March because you fell short on all your new year’s resolutions... again. Habits are the cornerstone to reaching your goals because they make you more productive voluntarily, almost unconsciously.
So how do we install these elusive new habits? Simple, the best way to create habits is to establish rules based on your goals. Here are some of my own examples that I’ll be using for the new year and that show how it works:
Examples of effective rules
#1 Goal: Learning Catalan
Rule: Learn and revise Catalan vocabularies on my Smartphone with the Ankidroid App whenever I’m waiting for the train, bus or any other line I’m standing in.
Why: I want to show respect to the local culture and at least be able to maintain a basic conversation or small talk with the locals.
#2 Goal: Run a half-marathon in under 2:00 hours
Rule: Every Monday, Thursday and Friday after coming home from work at 20:00, I’ll change my clothes and go straight outside for a 30 minute run.
Why: I want to push my limits, train my willpower and stay healthy both physically and mentally.
#3 Goal: Read 50 books
Rule: Every night at 12pm, I’ll stop watching Netflix and start reading a book in my bed for 30min before going to sleep.
Why: I want to broaden my mind and relax at night to improve my sleep.
#4 Goal: Improve my digital marketing skillset
Rule: Every workday, I’ll read one digital marketing blog article during my 30-minute train ride to work in the morning and going back in the afternoon.
Why: I want to continue developing into a leading expert in my field and stay on top of the latest insights.
Tips for creating habits and rules that work
As you may have noticed, I added an extra line for each goal and rule that states the main reason for why I want to achieve each objective. I also tried to make small and achievable rules, I aimed to stay efficient by optimizing my time and I creating regular tasks so I can start building a habit. All four aspects are really important and vastly enhance my chances of making a lasting change to my life and actually turning my goals into reality. Let’s review them one by one:
1. Find out why
Know why you’re doing what you’re doing and whether it’s really important to you. Take a step back and figure out what you want to achieve in your life and what your dreams are. It’s hard to motivate yourself to keep rowing your boat in the middle of the ocean if you don’t know which direction you want to go. By identifying the main reasons why you work on a specific task and how it will make your dream come true, you’ll give yourself an extra pack of motivational cookies that will push you forward when stress is starting to creep in and trying to interfere with your life.
2. Start with small, achievable rules
God didn’t create the world in one day, Rome wasn’t build in a day, so please don’t try to set and follow 10 new rules at once that demand 10 hours of your time each day. It’s doomed to fail. Instead, start small, begin with one simple rule and make it work for 30 days. Once it works, you can add another. Continue this process as the year progresses, but remember not to go overboard with all your excitement, be patient.
3. Be efficient
We all have “no time” to add more activities to our busy lives. So the best way to make rules work is to exercise them in “dead times”. For instance, instead of checking your Facebook during your breakfast, read the news or watch a brief Ted Talk. Instead of playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush on your 30-minute subway ride every workday, practice French vocabulary on your phone or listen to a podcast. Instead of binge watching Walking Dead every night, read a book or go for a run.
4. Make it a habit
As we’ve shown above, creating habits is the key to successful New Year resolution rules. Some of the best tips for that are to schedule achievable regular daily activities, to stay consistent, to set reminders, to look out for a partner to work on a similar goal as you to motivate each other. If you still need more helpful recommendations, you can find them here. However, the bottom line is always to follow your rules continuously and repeatedly. Of course you can skip a day or two every other week, but it should remain an exception and not another ”rule”.
Whether you want to learn new language, write a book, or get in shape, stop making New Year resolutions and make rules instead. The former is a waste of time and bound for failure, while the latter will help create lasting habits. Start small, be efficient and find out why you set your specific goals in the first place. So translate your objectives into rules and you’ll finally be able to get over the hump of making more false promises and move on to really changing your life for good.