BUILD RITUALS RATHER THAN SET PERSONAL GOALS
January 6, 2014 8 Comments
“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year resolutions”.
American comedian Joey Adams (1911-1999).
It’s that time of year again when many people are thinking through, and even committing to paper, their resolutions for driving change in their lives by setting their personal goals for 2014.
I believe that for most people this is an absolute waste of time.
(See “I resolve to stop making New Year’s resolutions” posted January 9, 2012).
If making New Year resolutions actually did work, then very few of us would have personal goals such as “Lose the same 10 kgs that I had on the list last year … and the year before that …”.
A 2007 study at the University of Bristol involving 3000 people showed that almost 90% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, despite the fact that 52% of the study’s participants were seriously confident of success at the beginning of the study.
But many of us keep going through this same process every year, making the same sort of commitments to ourselves that we have made in the past, in the mistaken belief that this year things will be different.
They won’t !
According to the BBC, the top-10 resolutions for 2014 are:
1. Lose weight
2. Get organised
3. Spend less money, save more
4. Enjoy life to the fullest
5. Stay fit and healthy
6. Learn something new
7. Quit smoking
8. Help others
9. Fall in love
10. Spend more family time
Not surprisingly, the top-10 in 2013 were:
1. Lose weight
2. Drink less
3. Learn something new
4. Quit smoking
5. Better work/life balance
6. Volunteer to help others
7. Save money
8. Get organised
9. Read more
10. Finish personal “to-do” lists
There is really not a lot of point in looking at prior years as there is, not surprisingly, little change.
The first problem with setting personal goals like “lose weight” is that they are judgemental. It is a way of saying that we are not happy with ourselves and will not be so until we lose those 10 kgs, and I believe that this is the wrong way to start any change process. To have any chance of success in driving change, it is a far better starting point if we feel good about ourselves and therefore can feel confident of being able to make change happen.
The second problem is that setting personal goals is actually at odds with long term success. We all know many people who successfully worked at losing those 10kgs, only to put them back on again afterwards. This is because the focus is totally on achieving the goal, and once the goal is reached we can feel good about having done so, pat ourselves on the back and just go back to all our old habits.
A better way is to build rituals and to focus on those rather than on the ultimate goal.
I have long been of the belief that if you can get a dog, early on, to do something 10 times in a row without deviation, the dog will be well on the way to building this into a habitual behaviour. Stopping a new puppy from jumping up on the sofa 10 times in a row, and picking it up each time it tries and putting it down on its own bean bag, will quickly ensure that the puppy gets the message, and it will then carry that behaviour on as an adult dog. However, if after just 4 or 5 times you relent just once and let them snuggle up next to you, you have broken the cycle of building the required behaviour, and will need to go back to square one.
The same is true of humans when it comes to building rituals.
For example, rather than set a goal to lose weight or get fit, it is much more effective to build a ritual such as “For at least the first month of this new year, I will do 30 minutes of treadmill/rowing-machine/walk/weights/yoga (whatever you like to do most) and I will not look at my email before I have done so”.
The same is true with weight loss. Rather than just having a goal of “Lose 10 kgs” , it is much more effective to build a ritual such as “For at least one month, on every Monday and Thursday I will have sugar, carbohydrate and alcohol free days”, or whatever else works best for you.
Committing to just one month (or even just 2 weeks) to get started, does not seem like setting oneself an overly onerous task, and does get us past the “10-times” rule, which will make it easier to keep going after the initial time period has been met.
In my own experiences, building a ritual is significantly more effective than setting a personal goal.
At the beginning of last year, if I had set a goal for myself of writing a book, I would have faced this with an incredible amount of trepidation, and would have found it very hard to get started, let alone to achieve the goal.
The reality is that an average book has about 50,000-60,000 words, and as I post my blog with about 1000 words every Monday, I have actually published my book for this last year.
Apart for a few short breaks for vacations during the year, I have created a ritual (actually built over the last 3 years) of a new blog post every Monday, and I feel quite discontented with myself on the few Mondays that I have not done this while on vacation, as it has become an integral part of my behaviour. Now after more than 200 posts, I have actually written enough for 3 books, without having ever set myself the unachievable goal of doing so.
As summarised by Charlie Brown “You know how I always dread the whole year? Well, this time I am only going to dread one day at a time.”