According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, over half of New Year’s resolutions have been abandoned within 6 months.
If there were a way to count all the little resolutions we make throughout the year – the vows to eat healthier, floss, or save more money – I bet that fraction would be much, much higher.
Why is it so hard to make a life change? Sure, there’s the force of inertia and habit – and Charles Duhigg, in his (highly recommended) book The Power of Habit, shows just how strong habits are. But there’s also something else. I think most resolutions remain abstract and floating around in our minds, formless blobs of hope that we don’t tie down firmly to reality.
The next time you want to make a change, start by being honest with yourself about these four questions.
1. Why do you want to do this?
In Appalachian Trials, thru-hiker Zach Davis shares tips on how to mentally prepare yourself for a gargantuan life change: spending four months out in the wilderness, hiking over 10 miles per day.
One of the main takeaways of the book, which applies far beyond the tree-lined paths of the Appalachian Trail, is that you must know your why. Too many people embark on the trail without a clear idea of their “why,” Davis says, and they are much more likely to give up. When thunderstorms strike, peanut butter becomes unappetizing, and your thighs start chafing, you need something to motivate you to continue. And that something is a clearly defined, regularly reviewed understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
In my case, my current resolution is to stress less. My “why” is pretty simple: stress wears me down, it wears my boyfriend down, and it wears my health down. When I have the urge to hop on the worry train or start asking “what ifs,” I remind myself of this.
2. Where are you now?
To make a change, you need to know what you’re changing from and to. This is the “from” part. In other words, ask yourself what your current situation is. How bad is the problem, and how long has it been going on? How does it make you feel? How does it make others feel? What feelings, behaviors, or habits contribute to it?
As meditators know, the idea is not to judge yourself but just understand. If you can’t accept the reality, you won’t be driven to change it. Think of this step as an extra boost of motivation.
If you’re a data-oriented person, consider signing up for AskMeEvery. This is a ridiculously simple service that emails you a daily question – for me, it’s “Did you stress?” Then, it collects all your data and shows you statistics: for example, I was very stressed about 12 times since New Year’s.
You could also sign up for the Honesty Experiment. It’s a self-improvement challenge that I run where participants commit to being honest with themselves and others for 30 days. The second half of the month is devoted to self-honesty, with daily tips that can shed light on areas for improvement.
3. What would success look like?
This is the “to” part – what you want to become. Again, you get an extra boost of motivation when you can imagine how you’ll feel, think, and look when you’ve successfully made a change.
Bonus points if you can distill your “to” into a very clear image. For me, it might be the smiling Buddha: peaceful and happy, with worries and frustrations gently bouncing off me and leaving me still grinning.
4. How do I get there?
And finally, change isn’t all about introspection. The final step is to come up with an action plan, specific steps to get from your “from” to your “to.” And the more specific, the better – not just “exercise more,” but “go to the gym three days a week.” Not just “eat healthier,” but “limit dessert to the weekends.” My action plan is a five-minute daily meditation where I review the previous day, think about what I want to change and why, and set intentions for the coming day.
It may sound simple, but self-honesty is a true challenge. We might find we don’t really want to change; we’re just changing for our spouse or for society. We might find our flaws are worse than we thought.
But it’s still better than ignorance. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not self-improvement.
Kira M. Newman is the founder of the Honesty Experiment, a 30-day challenge where people commit to being honest with themselves and others. She’s also a senior writer for Tech Cocktail, a media and events company for tech startups and entrepreneurs. She’s been published in the Huffington Post and Social Media Monthly. She’s currently living in Europe and loves spending time in Parisian cafes.