SSS #16: Atomic Habits > New Year's Resolutions


Question: What percentage of New Year's Resolutions end in failure? Before you keep reading, take a guess...

The number is a little disheartening, but I don't think it would surprise you. After all, positive behavior change is really freaking hard.

In this week's post, I go into the topic of Behavior Change. More specifically, how I've learned to approach achieving a goal while reducing my chance of failure.

- Sunny

Atomic Habits > New Year's Resolutions

81% of New Year’s Resolutions fail. Yikes! Das not gud...

I used to romanticize the idea of making New Year’s Resolutions. I’d go to a local cafe between Christmas and New Years Day. I’d order a latte, then sit in an oversized, leather armchair with a pen and notepad. I wouldn’t leave until I wrote down 3-5 goals I really wanted to achieve that year.

Don’t hate. I’m practically the inspiration behind the #BasicBitch meme.

Seriously though, here’s what I ended up with back in 2017:

  • Read 12 books
  • Deadlift 2x my body weight, Snatch 1x my body weight
  • Visible Abs
  • Help flip 6 properties

Year after year, I’d write a short list of goals on the first page of a new planner. I’d look at them a handful of times over the entire year. Sometimes I would hit my goal, sometimes I wouldn’t. It was a crapshoot.

2017 was no different. Except that it was particularly pathetic. I hit ½ of 1 goal. I successfully lifted 1x my body weight in the Snatch. I came up short on everything else. I became frustrated with my lack of progress and follow-through.

For 2018, I didn’t bother making any resolutions. I was more determined to find out why I failed on certain goals and succeeded on others. I started to seek out information that helped with behavior change.

No single resource has helped me as much as Atomic Habits, a book written by one of my favorite bloggers, James Clear.

After consuming most of James’ work, I learned a much better way to go about getting everything I want. Furthermore, I’m now able to quickly delineate between things I say I want and things I actually want.

The rest of this article is the gist of what I’ve learned from James over the past 2 years. I hope there’s a takeaway in here that helps you realize a goal you’ve been putting off or tried and failed before.

4 Problems with Goals

Goals are great for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall back to the level of your systems.

Problem 1: Winners and losers have the same goals.

Every player wants to win the championship. Every candidate wants to get the job. What separates those that succeed from those that fail if they all have the same goal? Their system. If you fix the inputs, the outcomes will take care of themselves.

There’s a reason Michael, Kobe, and Lebron have multiple championships. They fit into a day that many others do over a week.

Problem 2: Achieving a goal is a momentary change.

A clean room only lasts so long. You can muster up the energy to clean it when you become frustrated. However, from that moment of momentary cleanliness forward, it begins to become messy again.

The cleanest homes are those where there’s a policy to return items to their place. Beds are made every morning. Dishes are rinsed and put directly into the dishwasher. The system results in cleanliness.

Problem 3: Goals restrict your happiness.

People assume, “Once I reach my goal, I’ll be happy.” Anyone who has achieved their goal knows this isn’t true. All you do is *maybe* take a moment to appreciate what you’ve accomplished, and then move the goal further away to strive for something new.

The happiest people are those who fall in love with their process. When you fall in love with the system and not the product, you give yourself permission to be happy before the outcome is achieved.

Problem 4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress.

Often times, after achieving a goal, people revert back to where they started, or worse.

Imagine doing a weight-loss challenge and hitting your goal of losing 10lbs. You tried every trick in the book and achieved your goal. After accomplishing it, you take your foot off the gas and revert back to your old habits and gain back 15lbs.

Identifying a Goal is Not Enough

I’ve become a creature of habit. I live and die by my routine. Identifying a repeatable action I can execute with a predetermined frequency works much better than simply identifying the result I’m trying to achieve.

Habit Stacking

  1. Identify a single, small, action that will satisfy an end goal if performed diligently.
  2. Stack the action on top of something you already do consistently.

My goal of reading 18 books / year turned into reading 1 chapter per night before falling asleep.

Assuming 1 Chapter = 20 pages.

20 pages * 7 days * 52 weeks = 7,280 pages per year

7,280 pages per year / 300 page books = 24 books.

By implementing this process, I can fail 50% of the time and still reach my goal. If I’m being honest, I mostly stick to my routine Monday morning - Friday morning. I cut myself *a lot* of slack on the weekends. But even so, 4 out of 7 nights = 13 books per year. (24 * 4 / 7).

On Failure:

It’s not a failure if you don’t perform a good habit as much as you want.

It’s better for me to read 4 nights per week than not at all. Just like it’s better to eat a salad 3-5x per week than not at all. Or just like it’s better to work out 3-5x per week than not at all.

Don’t let an inability to be 100% compliant stop you from being 75% compliant.

Tracking Progress

Manually track the progress of your most important goals.

I use three apps to track my progress.

  1. MyFitnessPal - Track my calorie intake
  2. Personal Capital - Track our finances
  3. Momentum - Track my habits so I know where I’m willing to put in the work.

Tracking your progress helps you make real time adjustments to hitting your goal. It also keeps the result you’re trying to achieve top of mind.

In 2019, we had one financial goal: spend more money on groceries than restaurants. About halfway into the year, we were running even in both categories. After the summer, we realized our restaurant expense pulled way ahead. We had to adjust.

If we didn’t track our progress, we wouldn’t have realized we needed to cut back on eating out. We decided to stop using laziness as an excuse to eat out all the time. For the last quarter of the year, if we had food at home, we ate at home.

It’s worth mentioning, we did NOT succeed on our goal.

However, we weren’t that far off. I’m sure if we did not track our finances, we’d have spent closer to 2 or 3x on restaurants than grocery. Getting as close as we did took a lot of effort.

Build Habits That Fit Your Personality

I go to the gym so I can stay fit, sweat a little, hang out with cool people, and start my day right. I used to fixate on how much weight I can lift or how fast I can complete a workout.

Over time, my priorities changed, but my goals didn’t. That’s why I was failing. I went from doing extra strength sessions on Sundays to being happy with showing up to class three times a week.

That’s why I changed my fitness goals from heavier weights and faster times to attendance based. Hit the gym 180 days per year. 50%. I can go 5x per week for an entire month. Then skip a full week or two while on vacation without feeling guilty.

Change Your Story → Change Your Identity

The most effective way to change your habits is not to focus on what you want to achieve, but who you want to become. Your identity emerges out of your habits. Every action in line with your story is a vote for becoming the type of person you wish to become. Continuously edit your beliefs and expand your identity.

When’s the last time you questioned the beliefs you hold about yourself?

Common negative beliefs people are okay telling themselves:

  • I’m not good with names.
  • I’m always late / I’m terrible with directions.
  • I’m a mess / I’m just not that organized.

We love the stories we tell ourselves so much, we actively avoid contradicting them. To do so, would jeopardize our identity, our sense of self. So if the stories we tell ourselves are negative, what will our associated actions be?

If we tell ourselves we’re not good with names, we won’t put an effort into remembering new faces. If we tell ourselves we’re not organized, we won’t put an effort into tidying up.

Our thoughts become our words. Our words become our actions.

Why not just change our beliefs. Why not spin the negative stories we tell ourselves into positive ones?

Here are some positive beliefs I have about myself:

  • I’m really good with names.
  • I don’t get lost, and I’m always on time.
  • I keep my home and workspace clean enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by a surprise visitor.

But just saying it isn’t enough. This isn’t The Secret. You don’t look in a mirror and chant your way into being better.

However, you start to convince yourself by taking action and generating small wins. Tell yourself a positive story. Start doing things that support that story. Mostly because you don’t want to betray your identity.

The next time you meet someone, say their name 3 times in the same conversation.

The next time you have to be somewhere at a certain time, look up how long it takes to get there in advance on google maps. Plan to leave 10 minutes early.

The next time you see something out of place, put it where it’s supposed to be.

Remember, Every action in line with your story is a vote for becoming the type of person you wish to become.

Motion vs. Action

Try not to confuse motion with action. Motion is planning, learning, and strategizing. Action is doing. We can spend a lot of time in motion and fool ourselves into thinking we’re taking action.

The act of creating New Year’s Resolutions itself is motion. While it is necessary, it shouldn't be where the bulk of your time is spent.

No one can reap the benefits of action through motion. Reading about push-ups won’t make you stronger. Watching a documentary about clean eating won’t make you healthier. You have to do the work.

James Clear writes, “It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change… We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action.”

Motion: Researching the best diet before adjusting your consumption

Action: Eat more veggies and less cake.

Motion: Researching best programs to build muscle before buying a gym membership.

Action: Drop down and do 20 push ups.

TL;DR (Too Long Didn’t Read

Goals provide vision, but won’t get you closer to being happy. Build a system of good habits you enjoy doing at a predetermined frequency.

Track your progress. Your actions reveal how bad you want something. Build habits that fit your personality.

Take control of your identity with tiny wins that act as a vote in favor of who you want to be. Spend less time thinking, planning, and learning. Spend more time doing.

Most importantly, buy James Clear's book, Atomic Habits. Or at the very least, sign up for his email list.