Tired of getting all fired up with your New Year’s resolutions – only to disappoint yourself yet again? If you want to follow through with all those promises you make to yourself on January 1st, then your mind is the best place to invest your efforts.
We all know the pattern. January 1st is around the corner, and we start thinking about all those New Year’s resolutions we made last year that gradually slipped from view as the months rolled past. Those first few weeks in January may have started out well, but here you are in December and you still want to lose that weight. Your gym membership was barely used.
The books you were going to read sit untouched in a pile by your bed. You’re still in the same job, despite your resolution to look for a new one. All those goals, all those aspirations to improve and grow – still there, still waiting to be realized.
And so we start the process again, setting new New Year’s resolutions and hoping that somehow it’s going to be different this time.
But it’s not going to be different unless you do something different. As the saying goes (mistakenly attributed to Einstein, but brilliant nonetheless), “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
How to Make This Year Different (and Better)
You might believe you’re not getting results because you lack motivation. You can’t quite stop yourself from eating that piece of chocolate cake as you sit on the couch instead of going to gym. You can’t find the time for that new project. When you do find the time, you don’t feel like it and can’t seem to make yourself do it.
Yes, you may think you lack motivation. The reality, however, is that sticking to your plan and achieving your goals has little to do with motivation and everything to do with how you focus. If you want to keep your New Year’s resolutions this year, you need to stop viewing them as a battle of willpower, a harsh struggle that you will almost always lose.
Rather, achieving your goals involves a gentle redirection of your mental focus.
And once you understand the process, it’s surprisingly easy. Much easier than struggling not to eat that chocolate cake.
Here are three powerful ways to redirect your mental focus to achieve your goals. Use these techniques whenever you feel you are getting pulled off track and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get results.
1. Guard Your Thoughts. The simple reality is that those thoughts in your head are what's stopping you from doing what you set out to do. Many times, we’re not even aware of this internal dialogue that is derailing us.
The next time you want to go to the gym but can’t get yourself off the couch, or can’t seem to stop your hand from picking up the piece of chocolate cake, take a moment and notice what you’re thinking. Likely, there’s a little voice in your head telling you things – telling you that you can go to the gym or start your diet tomorrow, or that you don’t feel like it, or that you’re tired, or that one little piece of cake won’t make much difference.
And those thoughts fuel emotions, which in turn fuels resistance.
That little voice in your head can be very creative, so the possibilities of how it can derail you are endless. But everything begins to change when you step back and actively notice your thoughts. That little voice doesn’t like to be observed, and so it starts to quiet down a bit when you eavesdrop on its monologue.
And what quiets down that self-defeating voice even more is when you begin to dialogue with it. That little voice isn’t used to sharing the stage with anyone and can make a pretty hasty exit if suddenly it has to talk to you.
The key here is to ask questions, not make statements. If you notice you’re telling yourself that you could go to the gym tomorrow instead, or any other excuse your thoughts create as you try to move ahead with your particular goal, making a statement like, “but I must go to the gym today” sets you up for a willpower battle.
Instead, ask yourself an open-ended question like, “What would happen if I drove to the gym right now?” or “Could I pick up my gym bag and carry it to the door?” By asking a question, you create an opening, and that little voice in your head has a hard time objecting.
Try it. If you find you’re not moving forward on your New Year’s resolution, notice the thoughts in your head just as you're falling short. Observe those thoughts, and then start asking yourself questions that get you moving.
2. Remove the Temptations. It’s harder to fall short on your diet if there’s no chocolate cake in the house, and you’re greeted with only healthy food when you open the refrigerator. If your phone is a bit hard to access, you'll spend less time mindlessly checking it and more time working on your new project.
As I wrote elsewhere, a Cornell University study used Hershey’s Kisses to show that making our distractions and temptations less accessible goes a long way toward avoiding them.
In that study, participants who worked at a desk with a jar of Hershey’s Kisses either placed far enough away that they had to get up to retrieve them, or placed in an opaque jar that rendered the Kisses invisible, ate fewer Kisses than those who had them easily accessible on their desk or where they could see them.
More surprisingly, the participants who had a harder time getting to the Kisses thought they ate more of them than those who had them mindlessly within reach. Distractions loom larger when you have to work for them, and so you're less likely to succumb.
The lesson is clear. If you want to accomplish a task or goal, make whatever gets in the way less accessible. You will struggle a lot less by removing the object of the struggle.
3. Create Cues. Many studies have shown that our brains respond well to established cues. If you want to accomplish a task consistently, create a cue that primes your brain to begin that task. If you want to run regularly, set your running shoes in a specific place that is impossible to miss, and that will be your cue to get ready to run.
You already are using cues. If that slice of chocolate cake is on the table in plain view, that is your cue to eat it. If you look out the window to check the weather before you run and inevitably think it is too hot or too cold, then looking out the window is your cue to talk yourself out of running.
If the first thing you do when you turn on your laptop or pick up your phone is to check your social media accounts, the news or your favorite but not so productive app, then that is your cue to procrastinate instead of working on your chosen task.
Yes, you’re already using cues. So you may as well use them mindfully for things you actually want to do. And if upon seeing your cue, you begin to waver and resist instead of getting to work, then that’s the time to work on your thoughts (see number 1, above).
Proactively create a cue that gets you into your task. Work on your thoughts to dissolve internal resistance. And remove the temptations that take you off your path. These three techniques will help you focus on a new level so that you’re playing a whole different mental game – one that will result in you having accomplished your New Year’s resolutions long before next December rolls around.