The new year is only a day old, and my client Wendy is looking at her list of resolutions. They’re the things she’s focused on every January for the past three years – more exercise, better eating habits, more accomplishment at work, more patience with her kids.
They are worthy goals, but somehow each year they get lost in the rush of activity of everyday life. Her work feels stressful, her family life busy, she has a hard time drifting off to sleep, and she doesn’t have time for downtime.
What she said was, “This is too stressful. How can I keep up with everything and still have some time for me?”
I remember one of my first cars, a 1970 Datsun. It got me from San Diego to Portland many times, but it did have this one problem. The battery kept dying, occasionally leaving me stranded a hundred or two miles from where I wanted to be.
The problem turned out to be a faulty alternator – the part that replaces the energy the battery loses during use. If it isn’t working, eventually your car won’t work either. It’s a car’s way of recharging.
People need a way to recharge too. Wendy knew this. We all know it. So why do so many of us let it go?
The power of habit
Wendy and I looked at some of the things that kept her from stopping at the gym or getting help with some of the things she was doing at work. In her view, it came down to being “too busy.” She didn’t see a way out.
I saw the problem differently. I saw the things she was doing – taking on more work than she could reasonably manage, bringing work home, rushing to get dinner on the table, then working again in the evening – as a collection of habits. Even her “stressed” way of thinking about the problem was a habit.
There’s research behind this point of view. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, argues that almost everything we do is a habit. Our lives are made up of tiny routines that build on one another other.
In essence, habits are short routines that are automatic and perform a function. Duhigg argues that we create ourselves through habit. We become what we do.
How people change
This is good news, because habits can be changed. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest is to replace unhelpful habits with new, helpful habits that serve the same function.
Some habits are almost always helpful. My son, for example, consistently and always thanks people who help him at a store or a restaurant. He doesn’t have to remind himself to do it. It’s automatic.
Other habits start as an attempt to help, a problem, but ultimately create new problems. There are 3 steps in changing a habit like this. First, identify the positive intent behind the habit. Second, notice the moment the habit kicks into gear. Third, substitute a new, more helpful habit.
For Wendy, rushing from one task to another and taking work home came from a desire to do more for people she cared about, and to provide value at work. The busy thoughts that routinely got in the way of her sleep were related to wanting to solve some real and important problems. Worry is often based in a desire to help.
Next, Wendy began to notice when doing a last minute favor for a colleague became an automatic “yes,” and left her rushing. She started to observe when her desire to finish projects on time flipped into a regular practice of taking work home.
The next step was to make a change.
“Work-arounds” don’t always work
One winter I drove my old Datsun over the McKenzie pass in Oregon. It was about 4oF and starting to snow. I knew about the alternator problem at that point, but had put off fixing it – funds were scarce in those student days.
The car had started to show signs of strain – the dashboard lights were a bit hard to see, and the car tended to stall if it wasn’t getting a steady supply of gas. There were signals.
That left me in the silly position of having to sit in the car with my foot on the gas pedal while my friend hooked up the chains we needed to continue our travel. This one-person job took two of us, but we got it done and soon passed other motorists who were even less prepared.
When I got to Bend, the first thing I did was replace the alternator. What I didn’t do was replace the car. The car needed a small adjustment, not a complete overhaul.
That’s obvious with a car. It’s not always so obvious with a habit. The “problem” often seems so big and so diffuse it seems impossible to change. We conclude that the problem is “my job” or “my relationship.” But often the problem is really a habit, and replacing that is fairly easy.
Starting is easier than stopping
It’s hard to “stop worrying” or even “stop snapping at my kids”. It’s easy to start something, like take a deep breath or step outside for a minute.
When you want to change a habit, look for a specific point in time when you can make a change. It can be a time of day, such as after you wake up, when you walk in the door at work, when you leave a meeting. Or it can be linked to a certain event, such as, “after I brush my teeth” or “when someone asks me if I can finish something by tomorrow.”
Choose a simple and specific “replacement habit” – something that will help recharge your energy. Below are some simple habits that can help. They’re just ideas.
5 simple ways to recharge
- If you want to stop taking work home, give yourself 5 minutes to “look at your calendar” before agreeing to someone else’s timetable.
- If you want to make more time for you in your day, consider pulling out your to-do list and finding something that isn’t as important as your health and well-being, and crossing it off the list. If you want to keep track of it, consider moving it to a “Someday” list.
- If you need a simple moment to “recharge” in the middle of the day, consider taking a moment at lunch to bring your attention to the present moment. For example, try this: Pull out a crisp, fresh apple. As you eat, take time to notice it’s texture, taste, smell, and color. Research from the University of Massachusetts shows that simple practices like this improve focus, memory, and cognitive flexibility.
- If your larger goal is to ease relationship stress, consider this: After hearing something you disagree with, take 30 seconds to consider the other person’s point of view. Is there anything valuable you can find? Acknowledge that value before presenting your own point of view. Research at the Gottman Institute shows that simple habits such as these help build strong relationships.
- If you could use some extra emotional support, you can try this practice from University of Texas research, which shows that practices like these reduce anxiety and depression and increase happiness: send yourself an email, or a letter, recognizing something you have done lately. We’re so used to focusing on things we haven’t done that a habit of self-acknowledgment can make a big shift.
The keys to creating new habits are simple. Choose a new action, keep it small, write it down, and practice regularly until it takes root – about 6 weeks.
What makes a good New Year’s resolution
As Wendy began to replace some of her business with these new habits, she felt calmer. Her sleep got better. She was able to say, “No” to some of the things she used to do, and as a result had more time. As she brought less work home, she became more patient with her kids.
A few months after we started working together, she made it to the gym. Because of the time she reclaimed, better sleep, and thoughtfulness about her priorities, the quality of her work improved. Her husband and her colleagues noticed her new energy.
She gained all this not from “pushing through”, but from taking a close look at her habits and making one small change at a time. She found that she got more done not from trying harder, but by slowing down to recharge.
Big goals can be inspiring, at the New Year or any other time. They’re something to aim for. However, if you find a few things on your Resolutions List that appear year after year in the same form, you might want to try a new approach. Take a small action that helps you recharge. In the long run, it’s small changes that become habits that shape your life.