Tech + Health

01.11.14

The One Simple Behavioral Secret Will Help You Meet Your Life Goals in 2014

Give up the annual self-flagellation ritual of New Year's resolutions and starting tweaking your behavior to meet—and beat–your goals in 2014.

Many of us have stopped making New Year’s resolutions altogether.

It turns out that we are making the right decision when you consider research showing that people who set goals for the New Year are no happier than people who do not set New Years goals. That doesn’t change, even if we meet our goals.

In other words, the whole New Year’s resolution thing may be a modern-day excuse for self-flagellation.

There is great value in making a decision to improve yourself, but by wrapping it up as a resolution for the New Year, you set yourself up for failure.

According to a recent Harris poll, the top 10 most common resolutions range widely from “improve my finances,” to “stop procrastinating.” But on closer look, they can be categorized them into the four buckets that almost all resolutions fall into: money (improve finances, get a new job), health (lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, quit smoking), self-improvement (stop procrastinating, manage stress, make more time for yourself), and relationship improvement.

Most people want one of these four simple things in a resolution. So why do so many of us fail, year after year after year?

Success vs Failure

New Year’s resolutions are black-and-white. They do not allow for temporary setbacks; as soon as you fail once, the resolution has been broken, and you are more likely to return to your past behaviors. It changes your internal dialogue, from “I’m going to try” (which itself makes you weak) to “I am a failure.”

This explains why the same research mentioned above finds that people tend to make New Year’s resolutions less as they get older. People are smart enough to learn what doesn’t work consistently, then they stop doing it.

Resolutions are also temporary. They are goals you’re going to pursue, then stop when you fail, or when you meet them. That is not what you want when you seek permanent, lasting change in your life.

“By avoiding the need to be perfect, and focusing on behaviors that move the needle in the right direction, you can get the changes you seek.”

So the first thing to do is to allow yourself to fail without giving up entirely. Instead of setting a goal like “I will lose 50 pounds in 6 months,” a goal like “I will find a way to eat that sustainably helps me lose weight” will serve you better, because you can’t fail at a goal like that if you break down and eat some fast food once.

However, you’re still likely to fail with that goal.

Outcomes vs Behaviors

The reason for that is nicely summed up in a review in the American Journal of Heath Promotion (PDF) which found the more specific you make your resolution, the more likely you are to succeed. So we want specific goals, but we want ones that we won’t stop doing even if we fail. What do you call those goals?

Well, simply put, you don’t call them goals.

In business school, or most corporate jobs, you learn about real goals—they are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-based). You want your New Year’s resolution to be behavior-based, not goal based. But you also want to keep it measurable so you know whether you’re actually doing the behavior you want to encourage. So call them behaviors, not goals, and decide to measure them.

It works really well for the four categories of resolutions. By avoiding the need to be perfect, and focusing on behaviors that move the needle in the right direction, you can get the changes you seek.

In the money/finance category, goals move from “make 20% more this year” to “do my best each day to improve my skills and performance so I will get a raise.” That isn’t a typical goal, because it isn’t specific enough, it’s hard to measure, and it doesn’t have a deadline. However, you can ask yourself at bedtime every night, “Did I do it today?” Write down the answer. Just that act will help you change your behavior.

When it comes to the category of health resolutions, it’s all about behavior.

Or is it?

A goal of “lose 20 pounds” is fine, but you’re likely to gain it back, with interest. At least that was my experience when I taught myself to lose 100 pounds and keep it off for good (shameless plug: I use the Bulletproof Diet).

Like I used to, most people assume they already know what will work for them, so they make goals to exercise excessively or to try the latest fad diet. The most powerful goal you could make for your health is to measure what you do for the year. Just write down what you eat, what exercise you do, and what sleep you get. You’ll get more health improvement from having this awareness than you will from any one approach to your health.

Self improvement goals also lend themselves to behaviors too. The worst goals are phrased negatively. “Stop procrastinating” focuses your brain on procrastination. A far better resolution phrased as a behavior is to keep a to do list, and to cross at least one thing off the list every day. You might still procrastinate, but at least you’ll do it less. And if you miss a day, you haven’t failed yet, because the behavior is a daily practice, not a one-time gig.

Relationships are perhaps the hardest goals to set and behaviors to change, because you’re only half the variable. The other person (or people) are there too, and you don’t control them. So the only effective goal is to look at your behavior, not the relationship itself. A goal of “Have a better relationship with my mother” can easily become “Every week, do something nice for my mother.” Which of those goals is going to lead to a better relationship?

What to do with the wrong resolutions

If you’ve made resolutions already that you know are going to fail, don’t worry about it. Convert the resolutions now into behaviors that support the direction of the goal, and you are likely to build habits that are sustainable and cause genuine behavior change. In order to do that, you’ll have to give up the annual self-flagellation ritual called New Year’s resolutions anyway.

For more from Dave Asprey, visit bulletproofexec.com.