Forming Habits, How I Do It, and Why I Hate New Year’s Resolutions

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It’s hard to believe 2012 is just about over. A few weeks ago I was in LA spending time with my friend Bryan, and we both reflected over both our accomplishments this past year.

DISCLAIMER: This will not be the typical hoorah/feel good type of New Year’s Resolution post where I dole out a bunch of ultra generic tips about how to accomplish your goals in the New Year. In fact, I’m going to shed some light on my successes, ultimate failures, and what I’ve learned in the process.

Oh, and there’s something special at the end – please don’t miss it.

We’re going to touch upon how the holidays often put a wrench in our progress, and quite simply why I hate the general concept of Resolutions.

Goal-Setting on Paper + Reminders = Holy Crap It Works!

To give a bit of background, Bryan and I have been friends since around 2008 when he originally lived in Nashville.

He lived a few floors above my mother across town, and I eventually met him one day while I spent time at mama Deen’s place.

Long story short, we both had a bunch in common, and a true bromance was born. Bryan moved to LA to pursue a career in the digital arts (acting/music-making), and so I do my best to make it to LA for a visit whenever I can.

A few years ago, we sat down in a room together and asked the questions: “What do we want our lives to look like in the next year?” and “What do we need to accomplish for this to happen?”

To make this short, we wrote out specific, measurable goals on paper – the same paper, which forced us to look at each other’s goals on a daily basis. After we recorded them, we made copies, and laminated them for sake of preservation.

And then we went to work.

We even developed this saying that I talk about in this post with the acronym, NFE. It stands for No Effing Excuses. This was the beginning of an amazing form of accountability.

On a weekly basis, we’d call each other and say “Hey, how are you doing? Are you getting your crap done on a daily basis to make sure your life looks different this time next year?”

It’s funny – sometimes the phone call stung because it was a reminder that I (or Bryan) wasn’t putting in all the work I (we) could. The accountability was tough, but oh so worth it. Why?

Well… because it actually worked. It kept our goals at the forefront of our mind – just where they needed to be.

A year later (exactly), I was in LA for my birthday month (August 2011), and we were reviewing our old goal sheets.

We could check off most of the stuff on the list.

But here’s where it get interesting – we almost forgot entirely about the exact things we wrote on the list. Some of them became so ingrained in our being after looking at the goal sheet for the first month or two on a daily basis that they just became a part of us.

Guess what? We made new goals for 2012, and as I look back on that list now, I’m pretty amazed at what both of us have accomplished.

Of course there are things on the goal sheet that we eventually lost interest in, or changed our minds about – and that’s okay. The important thing is that we’re working toward our main focus, and getting stuff done on a daily basis that will add up to reaching that goal.

Bryan and I are much further along, now a full 2 years later, because of the 2 goal-setting meetings we had, and through continual accountability over Skype and text.

Now For The Lessons Learned

Habits are hard to form. I’ve failed over and over again with getting certain habits to stick…

Getting up early, or quitting drinking/smoking, or adding an extra day of training to an already hectic schedule is a big deal for most people.

When you think about this, we are merely a product of our habits – nothing more. The most two recent books I’ve read are The Practicing Mind by Sterner, and Bounce by Syed.

The premise of each text is that talent is not innate, but learned. I am good at what I’m good at because I’ve spent a LOT of time working on the skills and studying various texts to make me good at the stuff I’m good at.

And it’s not always been fun and games. It rarely ever is for people wanting to be above average.

The same goes for you – you have certain abilities and so-called talents because you’ve been diligent over time.

We also have bad habits as a result of practicing certain behaviors. Everything we experience in the present is due to habits, both good and bad.

If you’re overweight, underweight, constantly worrying about your food choices, or an over-exerciser, it’s all because of actions you’ve taken over time (practice). The practice eventually became your habits, and thus your current experience.

I already knew about this concept before I started reading these books, but the texts were a great reminder.

I began thinking about fitness, and the lifestyle I lead. It’s all because I’ve been exercising since a young age, and eventually through all my mistakes, personal experimentation, and problems I encountered trying to make fitness work for my life.

I’d say the most valuable lesson I’ve learned thus far is to chunk your activities into small, bite-sized pieces (we’re going to cover this at the very end, so stay with me).

When I think about it, I’ve actually been strength training for 13 years (half of my life), so it’s no wonder that it’s easy for me to find a way to make it into the weight room on a continual basis. I don’t need a constant reminder, or anyone to hold me accountable; it’s just what I do.

However, I know others haven’t built up this level of discipline yet, and for those, a lot of accountability is needed.

I guess that’s what I love so much about what I do – I get to facilitate a positive change by helping people instill good eating and training habits they can continue to use for life as long as they learn the principles of effective diet and training strategies.

My Ultimate Failures

Most don’t like to talk about their weaknesses, but here it goes. I’m such a big picture guy. I see everything as a whole, and the tiny moving parts are largely irrelevant to me.

Okay, so they’re not irrelevant. I am aware of them, but I don’t like to think of them much anymore. Actually, I’ve been a perfectionist all of my life, so getting caught up in minor details has plagued me for the most part.

As a result, later in life, I’ve found myself largely neglecting the tiny details to save myself from some of the neuroses I experienced as a kid and as a teen first getting into fitness. I actually wrote about some of my incessant hand washing and light-switching here (can’t believe I’m sharing this again).

This is a main reason why I try to help people focus on the things that matter with their personal fitness. You know, stuff like training effectively 3-4 times per week, eating a good diet of wholesome foods, getting enough sleep, and focusing on the journey as opposed being obsessed about rigid meal times, macro ratios, strict set/rep schemes, etc.

This is also very important for the budding beginner who’s prone to overanalyzing ever piece of advice they get, as opposed to simply working a plan until it stops working for them.

As a result of being such a big-picture guy, I’m not a very good steward of my time. I bite off more than I can chew, get burned out rather quickly, and find myself playing catch-up a lot simply because I often underestimate how much I can take on at once.

However I’ve learned to cope with all this by starting small, and setting mini-goals to get to where I am, and where I wish to be in the future.

But before I get into exactly how I go about my personal goal setting, I want to hate on New Year’s Resolutions.

Why I Hate New Year’s Resolutions

For the fitness industry, this is one of the busiest times of the year. Millions of gym memberships are sold, trainers’ schedules fill up, and people scramble for diet pills and revolutionary products that will help them finally get into shape!

However, most New Year’s Resolutions hardly last because of various reasons:

  • People initially bite off way more than we can chew (hi that’s me!)
  • We are not clear on exactly what we want
  • We spend too much time searching for the perfect solution
  • We don’t seek out some type of accountability

The list could go on forever, and ever but those are the main reasons I feel like most of us fail.

In fact, I asked this same question on Fitocracy most recently – see the screenshot below to see all the good answers:

As you probably notice, it’s quite clear – most people lack consistency, clear and focused goals, and are generally unwilling to do what it takes to reach their goals.

I can completely relate to this. I have a whole bunch of things I’ve started, only never to follow through with.

However, this began to change a few years ago when I changed my views about goals, and how to go about setting them.

Crash Course On Goal-Setting For 2013

It’s easy to sit down and dream up all you’re going to do in the New Year. It’s even easier to do nothing about them, and forgot about these ideas altogether. This is what the majority does.

If you’re serious about making major changes to your life in 2013, you need to start very, very small.

It’s great to have HUGE goals, but you need a solid, diligent plan to accomplish them.

This all starts with a main goal, and then creating very small chunks, working backward from where you’d like to be

I like to set 3-4 main goals. An example of this would be to have a fitness goal, career goal, relationship/family goal, and personal time goal (hobbies, studies, etc).

For this example I’m going to impose some limits on you. Initially, it may seem hard not create some super elaborate plan.

For fitness, at the most, I want you to pick 2 things you want to change each month. Do not aim for more than this.

These 2 things you wish to change must be the most important to you, and they must be something you have to focus on each day even if that means just looking at your notes as a reminder of what you’re working on.

Since I’m the fitness coach, we’ll talk about training and diet.

We’ll start small because if you decide to make MAJOR changes all at once, you might get overwhelmed and end up quitting.

Let’s say that you’re a raw beginner and your ultimate goal is to lose some weight, and change your shape.

For the first month, your focus is the following:

  • Replace breakfast cereal (or other processed carb) for fruit every day
  • Commit to walking for just 15 minutes 3 days per week

Those are pretty simple tasks, and only take a small part of your focus. It’s easy to make the one change to your breakfast, and it’s easy to find an extra 15 minutes 3 times per week for a casual walk.

For the second month, make 2 more changes that add to the first few.

  • Increase consumption of lean protein throughout the day, while maintaining your fruit intake in the morning.
  • Increase walking to 30 minutes 3 days per week.

For the third month, you’d keep making positive changes by adding to what you’ve already done with the ultimate goal of making dietary and exercise changes that lead to something you can continually do forever that will help you lose and maintain your new weight.

Imagine what your health and fitness would look like if you continually made small changes over the entire year? Imagine how much more sustainable the changes would be by taking the time to adapt to them.

Now I know this is very simple, and if you’re already used to eating well and exercising in general, you’d make changes to your routine that are in line with your current experience level.

Why Such Little Changes?

Why not? Most of what people do isn’t working. It’s easier to find success in the minor changes, as opposed to getting inundated with lofty goals you’re not ready or willing to conquer.

This only leads us to feeling frustrated, and like a failure (which you are not, I promise).

There’s also something special about being able to look at something you’ve set to accomplish and being able to cross it off your list, so to speak.

I even do this on a daily basis.

Effective To-Do Lists

For my workflow, I use an online program coincidentally called WorkFlowy, which allows me to make endless amounts of to-do lists. I have it all set out for each day of the week, as well as a to-do list labeled #RightNowNFE that gets moved to the front of my face on a daily basis.

I start with small stuff I can knock out really quickly such as the following:

  • Respond to questions on forums
  • Meditate for 10 minutes
  • 10 minutes of mobility drills
  • Format blog post
  • Follow-up with LGN365 questions
  • Drop package in the mail

When looking at the tasks I have to get done for the day, this stuff is super easy, and allows me to feel good about checking something off the list, and gets my day going in a positive fashion.

As I continue crossing stuff off the list, I want to keep doing so because, umm, it feels amazing.

And then I continue onward for the day.

My goal is to have 3-5 small tasks to get the day started, and 2-3 big tasks that will have a positive impact on my life/business/relationships every single day.

Consistent Reminders

For me, this is having a 6-month goal list clearly written out with daily action statements for each goal on my desk. It’s laminated, and virtually indestructible. Whenever I travel, I stick it in my bag so I can place it under my keyboard, and have it to view daily as I work.

Right now, I have 3 goals I set back in September. The first goal is to meditate daily for stress relief, and general wellbeing. The next goal is to spend time daily reading/studying to become better at what I do in my field.

The last one is to build JCDFitness on a daily basis through writing articles, guest articles, contributing to magazines, replying to emails and coaching.

Under each goal, I have the action statements that must happen in order to hit the goals I’ve made for the 6-month mark.

I only picked 3 because it’s enough for my brain to focus on for this time period, and my daily to-do lists all revolved around these goals.

If you want to succeed, you need consistent reminders of what to do, and why you’re doing them. This can be in the form of a list of goals in front of your face like I have, or it can be something on your smart phone – it doesn’t matter, just have a constant reminder in place to remind you what you’re working toward.

Accountability

The last thing I want to touch upon is accountability. Just having 1-2 friends (but don’t tell the whole world – here’s why), a support group like Fitocracy or a forum, etc. can make a world of difference.

Why? Because we find strength in the fact that others are on or have been on a similar journey.

When I need a kick in the butt, I have people like Roman, or Andy Fossett give me some advice, or their opinion on what I’m doing/how I can do it better.

This is why I stay in touch with Bryan to make sure we’re both doing what it takes on a daily basis to make our lives what we want them to be.

Don’t Look Back In Regret Or Shame

The last thing we want is to look back and be sad that we didn’t make a positive change in our lives. This is why I hate New Year’s because I see so many people making amazing declarations, but giving up because they have no reason why they should/can succeed.

Too many times I’ve looked back over a year and been frustrated because I didn’t get enough done, or didn’t get what I wanted. This was way before I started practicing my current goal-setting strategy.

It was before I realized the importance of having reminders, and being consistent with my daily tasks.

It was way before I would employ some type of accountability into my life – way before I was good havings others to keep me in check.

Don’t look back in regret – it’s like I mentioned in the article Burn Your Ships:

‘Looking back on a time you wish you’d have taken action is one of the worst feelings in the world. There’s a saying by Mark Twain that goes something like this: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

Don’t be the person who accumulates a bunch of knowledge and never does anything with it. That’s a waste of life, time and money.’

So here’s my urge to you. Forget about New Year’s Resolutions altogether. If you’ve been meaning to make positive changes in your life through diet and strength training, then start now. Make your goal sheet. I’ll help if you need me to.

Write out what you need to accomplish in your life, and then get to work.

Comments

  1. says

    This is some good stuff. I’m still working on my 100 “things” list–putting a lot of thought into it, and seeking out good advice online about goal setting. I wish I knew someone who was as determined as I am to really make changes and who could be my accountability friend–like you had. I really like that idea. I should really think and start looking for that person.

  2. Jackie says

    Have you read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg? I’m about halfway through it, and a lot of what you said in this post resonated with the things in this book. There is a lot of discussion about how it’s really difficult to actually create new habits, but if you can find a way to change existing ones, the likelihood of success goes way up. There is also discussion on the book about how changing just one key habit can have a ripple effect that results in dramatic changes down the line.

  3. Neeta says

    I fucking love everything about this article. Excellent job articulating this, JC! Everything you mentioned is 100% in line with my goal of setting up my personal plan for 2013. (My goal to make more goals – yeah, get with it, people! JC’s got it right with all the goal-talk). I started mine last weekend. Four “categories,” so to speak: Fitness, Career, Relationships, Personal. Thanks for hitting it home even further and helping me make my plan, and subsequently my 2013, as kick ass as possible!

    PS Crossing items off of to-do lists is by far one of the best feelings ever – I encourage all to give it a try if you have not done so yet! I began my to-do list journey around the age of 12 and I can confidently say that it has helped me get to where I am today.

    • says

      Neeta,

      I’m glad this resonated with you. It’s super important to do the things that are effective for you! if that means crossing of a to-do list, starting a morning ritual, or whatever.

  4. Andrew says

    I really like your idea of “only” working on 1-2 things at a time instead of trying to flip that proverbial switch and go from one extreme to another, literally overnight. I’ve been one of those people in the past who was sedentary and ate junk food ab libitum up until a Sunday, and then vowed on Monday to follow a structured meal plan of healthy eating and regular exercise. Needless to say, I always got overwhelmed and quit!

    This year I’ve going to pursue my body composition goals in chunks, instead of trying to accomplish everything in one feel swoop. After all, Rome wasn’t conquered in a day!

    “By the mile it’s a trial, by the yard it is hard, by the inch it’s a cinch!”—Zig Ziglar

    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”—Rita Mae Brown

  5. says

    JC, as a fellow fitness coach we’re in the same boat with regards to New Years resolutions. However, after spending more than the last two years researching the traditional approach to Goal Setting I’ve come to believe that they are relatively irrelevant as well, particularly, setting several of them at a time.

    There are many reasons for this:

    1. I think you should check out this paper on Goal Dilution: http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ayelet.fishbach/research/Dilution.pdf

    The evidence to support your buddy Leo Babauta’s approach to ‘one-thing-at-a-time.’

    2. Parkinson’s Law – The amount of time you give yourself to complete a task is the amount of time it will take for completion – and the perfect rationalization for procrastination, and why it’s essential to focus on bite-size daily/weekly habitual chunks or what I term ‘Process-Oriented Goals.’ I wrote a post about that last year (http://artofweightlossblog.com/setting-useful-goals/). Essentially, even if you remind yourself about long-term goals (things happening 3 months from now) regularly, it’s still too far away to be meaningful, whereas the tasks you set up in your to-do list are the real difference makers.

    3. ‘Traditional Goals’ create an external reward feedback mechanism. Making the activities extrinsic in nature (providing extrinsic motivation) rather than intrinsic, and as I’m sure you know, intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic. The reward becomes completion of a goal, rather than the shear enjoyment of the activity.

    4. ‘Traditional Goals’ (especially announced) often result in ‘cheating’ (Check out the book ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink). It’s been my personal experience that people often end up fudging numbers simply to gain the satisfaction of ‘achieving’ a goal.

    If you’d like to chat further about this stuff I would dig sharing with you some additional insights my own research has revealed.

    • says

      1. thanks for the paper. will check it out.

      2. Familiar with P’s law. thanks for the reminder, tho.

      3. yup – very aware of this.

      4. Yeah, totally. I think we’ve all done this. However, I try to think about how it makes me feel to ‘cheat’ and I think if everyone is true to themselves, they’re realize it makes us feel empty. Anyway, thanks for all this – emailing you now.

  6. Deborah says

    I really liked this article. I’m very detailed oriented and, in the past, have set up multiple categories (like 7) with multiple goals as my “New Year’s resolutions”. It became a major effort just to track them all and, of course, led to failure. I also recently read 18 Minutes by Peter Bregman and his approach is similar to yours, that being to just pick 3-4 goals to focus on. I like your idea of starting small and adding things each month. That will allow me to make changes without being overwhelmed and build success on a consistent basis. Thanks, JC!

    • says

      I haven’t read that book, but most texts that are effective with goal-setting usually follow a similar theme of setting small, trackable goals. Glad you liked the article.

  7. Alyona says

    Cool stuff. I’m gonna go ahead and put it into action (since taking action is one of the things I like to work on)

  8. says

    Great post JC. For the clients I work with, and myself, molding in accountability with our pursuit of our goals has made a profound impact.

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