Happy New Year to all the Professionelles out there! I wanted to give you guys something tangible and helpful as my first post of a new decade. If you’re anything like me, New Year’s can actually be pretty fraught with pressure to implement some kind of big, meaningful change in your life. After all, that’s how we mark progress, right?
Since everyone hates pressure, I see a lot of memes and comments on social media rejecting New Year’s resolutions completely. I don’t think this is the answer – why not use the motivation of a fresh start to spark change we’ve been meaning to get around to?
The problem isn’t that the start of a new year is the wrong time to set goals – the problem is that you’ll never stick to a goal, not in January or any other time of year, if you don’t build the right habits first. I’m going to tell you how to build the right habits for your goals.
The Difference between Goals and Habits
I’m drawing on a lot of the ideas from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear here, mixed in with a few customizations I’ve added to make his recommendations more effective.
Atomic Habits points out that the difference between Olympic athletics and Fortune 500 CEOs vs the rest of us isn’t our goals. Most of us have big goals in mind and want to be successful. That means the difference must be our habits. Athletes have disciplined routines that include practicing for hours a day. If you want to truly improve on something, you need to focus on your habits instead of your goals.
Building Habits You’ll Actually Keep Doing
Habits are notoriously hard to build so we’re going to keep it super simple (you can read Atomic Habits if you want more details, but I’m giving you the highlights that worked best for me). Here’s a quick list of some of the goals I set out for myself this year – then I’ll show you how to convert them into concrete habits.
Step 1: Start with ONLY the very first step
Start with a habit that takes less than two minutes to complete. So your goal is to go spin class four times a week? That’s too big. Take it down to something that can be done in two minutes or less. Example:
- Goal: go to spin class four times a week
- First habit to build: four times a week, put on your gym clothes
This strategy may seem ridiculous but it really works. One of my goals was to mediate every day, but this is too daunting because if I miss a couple days I’ll probably lose my motivation and fall off the wagon completely. Instead, my morning habit is:
- Every morning, right after opening my eyes I will open my mediation app, click the daily meditation, and put on my headphones.
This entire process takes about one minute max. The thing is, once I’ve turned on the meditation I’m most likely going to sit there for the full ten minutes and finish it. Once you’re standing there in your gym clothes, you’re more likely to get in the mood to go to the gym. But the important thing is that at the early stages of building a habit, to prevent yourself getting overwhelmed, you are only obligated to build up the two minute version of the habit.
Even if all you did today was put on your gym clothes, you are one step closer to going to the gym four times a week. Congrats!
Step 2: Be HIGHLY specific about date and time
One of the hardest parts of training your brain to stick to a habit is choice. When it’s open-ended for you to choose when to perform the habit, you get busy and then a week has gone by before you remember that you were supposed to go spinning.
To stop that from happening, choose an exact date and time you will perform your new habit. Here are all the examples I’m currently using:
- Every weekday morning, the moment I wake up, I will put on my headphones and start a meditation.
- Every single day, as I sit down to dinner, I will take my vitamins.
- Every Saturday, I will attend the 12:00 p.m. martial arts class at my studio.
- Every Sunday, I will attend the 11:30 a.m. spin class at my gym.
These are all really simple habits, but that’s the point. We’re starting off easy on purpose – better to build foundational habits and then build up to more complex habits, instead of starting with big goals that are too overwhelming to stick to (and that you’ll ultimately give up on). For the record, here are the foundational habits I ended up with:
Now, You Try It!
Use this template (from Atomic Habits) to build your habits:
[Day/Time] + [Two minute action] = Habit
And that’s all for now! Next week I’ll let you in on the last two key steps to habit building that I’ve found are actually the most important for making everything stick. This week, focus on setting at least one small (two minute) habit at a specific time, and stick to it!