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New Year’s Revolution

If you’re thinking of making a New Year’s resolution in a couple of days time, don’t! Around 80% of people do, apparently, and one-third of those don’t survive beyond the first week of January. Three months out, the failure rate rises to 85%.

There’s nothing special about resolutions and January 1. You can make a new resolution any day of the year. But here are two tricks to keep in mind: how you manage it and how you phrase it.

The fallacy of goal setting

Despite what everyone tells you, setting goals is mostly a waste of time, and in many cases it’s self-defeating. Imagine, for example, you set yourself a goal of going to the gym five times a week. Exercise can be hard work, particularly when you’re starting out, and especially if you already put a lot of energy into your job. Most people don’t really enjoy gym workouts and only go along because they feel they have to. The least temptation – a couple of drinks after work, catching up with a friend, a cold, a late night the night before – and you’ll skip a session, promising yourself you’ll catch up at the weekend, or next week … yet somehow you never do. Pretty soon, that daily workout’s down to three times a week, then two, then none.

Sound familiar? Yep, we’ve all done it.

(It’s also the reason why gyms sell memberships, not one-trip tickets. It guarantees their income because only 18% of members use the gym regularly and consistently.)

Many years ago I joined a company that had a corporate gym. I went along and did a fitness test, pedalling a stationary bicycle for a fixed number of minutes before having my pulse and respiratory rate checked to see how quickly I recovered. The fitness instructor graphed my results and said, ‘So what sports do you play?’

‘Sports? Me?’ I laughed. ‘I don’t.’

‘Something social, then: jogging, swimming, surfing, social football?’

I shook my head.

He looked puzzled and checked his graph again. ‘Are you sure?’

‘I ski a bit in the winter. A week, maybe. And the occasional weekend.’

He shook his head. ‘It won’t be that. You must be doing something regularly.’

I racked my brains. ‘I do walk to work each day.’

‘How far?’

‘It’s about twenty minutes each way.’

He threw up his hands. ‘There you go. You’re doing two workouts a day!’

Two workouts a day? I’d never guessed. And if someone had told me I had to do two workouts a day (or even one), my answer would have turned their ears blue.

What I’d lucked into by pure chance was a system, not a goal. That system carried me to and from work each day. I never once thought of walking as a workout – and I still don’t. It’s a way to get somewhere, certainly, but it’s also a time to think, to meet people and chat, listen to music or an audiobook. It’s not dependent on anything. There are no scheduled classes, no start and stop times. I can head out early and dawdle, work late, have a drink afterwards, go to a movie and dinner, and still complete my workout for the day. I don’t think of it as a part of an exercise regime or a scheme for healthy living. It’s just what I do.

It passes what I call the Toothbrush Test.

The toothbrush test

No one ever agonises over brushing their teeth. No one goes,”‘I’m not in the mood to brush right now,” or “I’m too tired,” or “I’ll double-brush tomorrow.” They just do it without agonising over it, or even really thinking about it. It’s a habit. An ingrained system: Going to bed? Brush teeth. Morning shower? Brush teeth.

If you can sneak your resolution into your daily routine and make it a habit, you’re on your way. For many years I set my alarm an hour earlier than I really needed for work and got into the habit of writing before breakfast. It became an unthinking part of my routine. I just did it, and still do.

Here’s another reason why goals aren’t helpful. Consider these worthy aims:

  • In two years’ time, I’m going to have my boss’s job.
  • I’m going to lose 20lb/10Kg’s by Christmas.
  • This year I’m going to write a novel.

What’s missing here?

You probably spotted it right away. That’s right, the how. How do you plan to get your boss’s job in two years’ time? ​ How are you going to lose that much weight? How will you go about writing a novel?

Now consider these alternatives:

  • I’m going to build my knowledge and qualifications by doing part-time courses in business administration, accountancy and IT.
  • Instead of buying a two-zone bus ticket each month, I’m going to buy a one-zone ticket and walk that extra zone.
  • Every work day, I’m going to write 300 words during my lunch break.

See the difference? Systems, not goals. Simple practices that will lead you to your goals – and maybe way beyond. Concrete things you can start doing right away.

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