Use your New Years motivation to structure longterm change

It is once again that time of the year where we all dream to magically change into a better person. We transcribe our dreams into a list of New Year’s resolutions — whether it’s becoming fit, getting a better job, eating healthier, or furthering our education. Truth is, regardless of how well intentioned they may be, most of the resolutions that are set will not be achieved instantaneously. We are all creatures of habit, and changing our own behavior overnight is very difficult. In order to increase our chances of creating lasting New Years resolutions, we will look at how our habits and motivation work together and how to leverage that to structure longterm positive behavior change.

First thing’s first — why do we set habits during New Year’s? The general consensus is that a new year is seen as a new leaf in our book of life, a clean slate to a new beginning in which we want to reinvent ourselves. The way we currently do it is by setting many New Years resolutions, but we can’t truly expect to change 5–10 positive/negative habits simultaneously. It’s possible to sustain that for a while before slipping, becoming discouraged, and eventually giving up. But really, we can reinvent ourselves at any point in the year, and we don’t have to wait and procrastinate on all the things we want to change until next year. The best way to think of resolutions and bettering ourselves is by making it into a lifestyle of continuous improvement and not just make it a once-a-year thing. But how can we do this?

Dr. BJ Fogg’s research in human behavior

To make lasting change, we need to understand how motivation and habits work. I will be summarizing some of the key points Dr. BJ Fogg makes in this video, which I highly recommend watching.

More information at http://behaviormodel.org/index.html

In the picture above, you can see “The Fogg Behavior Model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.” When we have high motivation we are able to do very hard things, but as motivation drops, we slowly lose the ability of doing hard things. The triggers are what make us do things for example, walking to the kitchen, might trigger us to open up the fridge. At that point testing our motivation and ability to be disciplined by posing the question whether to eat vegetables or ice cream.

Motivation Wave

This is how a view of our motivation levels could look like

Motivation constantly fluctuates. During the peaks, we are temporary allowed to do hard things. During the start of our year we are at the highest, so we can take advantage of that! We also have motivation troughs where we can’t do hard things. Dr. BJ Fogg mentions he is not keen on amping motivation, and instead proposes harnessing the motivation wave as it comes.

What he suggests is helping people (in this case yourself) succeed on the most desirable behavior that matches your current motivation. He talks about how there are desirable behavior that range from hard to-do to easy to-do. By looking at your motivation level, the higher it is, the harder the things you can do. In contrast, the lower it is, the less you can accomplish. Motivation, however, is very hard to change. If the behavior is easy enough to do, you will do it. This is where he brings up his work with Tiny Habits, and the importance of making habits that are very easy to do.

Motivation Peaks

When motivation is high, he suggest these top priorities will set yourself up for success:

  1. First priority is to do hard things that will structure future behavior. For example, if you’re trying to workout, don’t just pick out the running shoes you want, instead, get in touch with a trainer, pay them, and commit yourself to workout with them for a certain period of time. That way, you have to work to AVOID that behavior, and that’s what characterizes structuring behavior. In other words, you’re setting up a default that will happen automatically.
  2. Second priority, do something hard that makes future behaviors easier, or reduces barriers. In this case, example is when you get home from the grocery store with vegetables, you wash them, cut them up, put them in storage containers, and put them in the fridge. Then later during the week while motivation sags, the goal of eating vegetables becomes much easier to do. He puts a focus on simplicity as that is what helps us require less motivation to do things. Another example is instead of going to the gym, exercise using a set of resistance bands handy and doing 5 different exercises that take less than 10 minutes. Instead of having to drive 15 mins, workout for 30 mins, drive back 15 mins, you can just grab the resistance bands and work out for 10 mins. This effectively removes the barrier in our head where exercising seems like it will take a long time.
  3. Third priority, do hard things that will increase future skills/capabilities. For example, learning healthy recipes for the first time. At first it’s hard to do it, but the more you do it, the easier and more intuitive it gets after. In this case, you are not necessarily structuring behavior or reducing barriers, but are instead training yourself, or the user, to become more capable.

During these high motivation peaks, you don’t do simple, one time behaviors, or tiny habits with easy steps, since these can be done when we have low motivation. Instead, you have to harness the motivation peak before it subsides. You do this by structuring behavior and reducing barriers — which is in contrast to artificially amping your motivation in order to do hard things. You are instead understanding how you work, and using that information to your advantage.

Motivation Troughs

The troughs in the motivational waves are our default state, where we cannot do hard things. This is where we rely on our structured behaviors that we previously created when we had a lot of motivation, the tiny habits that are easy to do, and the baby steps. Because they’re easy, motivation doesn’t have to be high to get them done.

Positive longterm change requires continuous baby steps instead of inconsistent big leaps

Longterm change

Focus on baby steps for long-term change. Big leaps almost always fail. There’s two realistic ways to set a long-term change:

  1. Changing someone’s environment (context and social world).
  2. Taking baby steps. Little by little, people change and as they do the simple things, they naturally shape the world around them (their environment). Trust that tiny habits grow naturally — if you start doing something very SMALL, and it is truly a habit that you do every day, it will grow and strengthen to its natural size and state. Dr. Fogg’s favorite example is starting a flossing habit by only flossing one tooth a day, until eventually you floss them all. He mentions there’s something magical about little successes that he doesn’t quite yet understand.

New Years Resolutions Next Steps

  1. Make self-improvement an every day process.
  2. Start small. Choose 3 habits that you want to have. Preferably, habits that create more positive habits and take baby steps.
  3. Harness the New Year’s motivation wave — structure your future behavior and reduce barriers for your desired habits.
  4. Be okay with failing and celebrate your small wins.

Closing Thoughts

What do you think? What works for you? What doesn’t? I’m curious to see how others create long lasting positive behavior changes in their lives.