New year, new start on old habits?


I didn’t go looking for a resolution to start 2015 with disappointment and mild self-loathing. It found me.

A friend organized a challenge for five days of clean eating­—guidelines neatly packaged with grocery lists and recipes and workout suggestions, all accessible in a private Facebook group with the convenience of notifications when new content was available and motivation from other participants. It seemed like such a great idea. And it was only five days. “I can so do this,” I thought.

About 36 hours in, I was done. Which turned out to be a lot better than the time I attempted to give up swearing for Lent, a foolish choice that ended minutes later in a frenzy fit for The Jerry Springer Show. But still.

To be honest, I gave it a halfhearted shot and stress reared its ugly head. And for those reasons, this instance is more comical to me than heartbreaking. I tend to avoid setting or accepting challenges, resolutions, or any reason to start something new and strict and difficult “on Monday” or “in the New Year.” I have the self-awareness to know that I can’t raise my fist and shout, “Starting now, no more Oreos dipped in peanut butter shall be consumed!” I will fail at these exercises in self-discipline and restriction. Every single time.


When trying to change, why do we consistently fall short of our goals?

There’s this episode of Bob’s Burgers (yes, the cartoon) where Linda pays for her son, Gene, to take The Deuce of Diamonds’ baseball training program, “Diamonds in the Rough.” It’s quickly revealed that the Deuce was once The Prince of Persuasion, master of the “Ancient Art of Picking Up Women” in an earlier season. It made me think about the instructional business and how it is certainly rife with many real-life Deuces, pseudo-gurus making a profit off of people’s short-lived motivation—because the desire for change is universal.

At some point or another, we all want change. Whether it’s a slimmer waist, a thicker wallet, a more organized life, or a better world. And we seem to want it bad. Bad enough that we can count on a few things, January after January: The parking lot at the gym will always be packed. Our social media feeds will always be taken over with diet and stress-management tips. Vows will be made to quit smoking, drink less alcohol, tackle debt, and make time for others.

So why is that same parking lot at the gym mostly empty by March? Why do less than half of those who set resolutions stick to them after month six? I wish I had clear answers to these questions. But even though I’m surrounded by smart thinkers who ponder theories of change, and I read and research and take in their words in an attempt to become somewhat of an expert myself … here I am, failing right alongside the masses who set out for self-improvement.

Ari’s resolutions sum up the change-mentality of many people I know whose Januarys are often filled with lists of things to do to be better—for ourselves and for others.

Here’s what I’ve learned on my many personal journeys for change.

  • It’s HARD. (So wise, I know.) Truly—whether it’s good change or bad—when it’s significant, change is always difficult. I think about my sister and her husband. They welcomed my niece, Addison, this past summer. And while everyone in my family agrees this was a wonderful, positive change, it is still difficult. Life-alteringly difficult.
  • It takes time. The number 21 emerged in the 1960s in postulations about the days it takes to develop a new habit. More recent studies take this number to an average of 66, but it depends on the person and on the habit being formed. In sum, if you want change, you need persistence.
  • Shame and guilt don’t help. Feeling bad about missing a workout doesn’t do much to keep me on track—if anything, when I’ve been too strict with a goal, I’m more likely to give up entirely. We need to be gentle with ourselves and forgive lapses or setbacks so we can feel empowered to keep going.
  • Context is everything. This is probably the biggest lesson learned, and it’s one supported by many researchers, psychologists, and psychosocial analysts. Attempting to steel ourselves, to be stronger somehow, and just NOT eat junk food may be impossible. Removing that stuff from our pantries and fridges altogether is a more realistic way to avoid temptation (and keep our emotional side from cracking).


OK—that’s personal change. What about bigger change?

How do we—organizations, businesses, community leaders, and others—affect change? Real, lasting change? How can we make others change? Especially if we have no control over their environment. It’s something we Cools—and all advertising and marketing folks—obsess over.

First off, we can’t make people change. We may certainly want to and even try to (sometimes at the expense of our relationships). But in the research and anecdotes shared regularly with us by our Director of Insight, Dr. Renee Lertzman, we are humbly reminded that this just isn’t possible. What we can do is invite, inspire, support, and facilitate changes that are already there, waiting to happen.

A video by Daniel Pink breaks down what we thought we knew about motivating through incentives. It’s fascinating stuff that’s definitely worth a listen, neatly summarized in Renee’s words:

 “You can dangle a reward to change. But motivation must be self-directed to have any impact.”

This can apply at all levels—whether we’re trying to lead a different life individually, or move society to a better place collectively. Two ingredients need to be present: We have to want it, and we have to feel like we can do it. How do we achieve those two things? Still highly variable based on situational factors.

Baby steps to creating new habits

At this point of conclusion, I’ve likely left you with nothing actionable (and maybe I’ve even created more angst about how change is hard—for that, I’m sorry). But hopefully there are some insights to think on. And lastly, this formula from Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab Director, BJ Fogg, who advocates for the adoption of “tiny habits” over big change: “After I [existing behavior], I will [tiny new behavior].”

For example: “After I turn on the TV, I will do ten sit-ups.” It relies on using an existing behavior that we routinely do as a trigger for a habit you want to stick to and build on. (You can watch BJ Fogg’s 2012 TEDx talk on tiny habits here.)

I, for one, have a few formulas to test. Namely: After I log onto Facebook, I will chug a glass of water.

Please wish me (and my bladder) luck.

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