‘New year, new you’ a slogan popularised by quick-fix snake oil salesmen has become a cliché, a joke. Still, each year, at around this time, many of us sit down to make resolutions for the year ahead. These resolutions are often wildly ambitious and lacking in detail.
“I will eat healthily”
The intention: noble. But without a clear a definition of what ‘healthy’ means or some sort of plan on how we might reach it, the pursuit of this goal is doomed to confusion and frustration.
So there’s my first point:
If you are going to make resolutions, make sure they are: a) clearly defined; b) supported by some sort of plan.
Taking the example above, we might define “eating healthily” as: eating 5 portions of vegetables per day, including protein with each meal, getting more than 80% of our calories from whole (unprocessed foods), and eating less than 30g of sugar a day.
NB: This is not a definitive statement of healthy eating – it’s a sketch.
The point is – we have some clear criteria. We have some measurable sub-goals. We have some clarity.
Now on to part b) the plan. Change tends to be easier when we have some idea of how it’s going to come about. Take your current situation, commitments and limitations into account. If you’re a single Mum working 3 jobs to support your 2 children, its probably unrealistic to expect yourself to cook all your meals from scratch every day of the week. Likewise, if you’re addicted to sugar, caffeine and processed food, it might be challenging to expect yourself to suddenly switch to salad and water.
If you want to make sustainable change with the least amount of grief possible, you may need to compromise a little on your goal. For the busy single Mum, the goal may become eating less than 50% of total calories from processed foods. The plan for this may be to start making one home-cooked meal a week, on the easiest day, eg, Sundays, and to freeze enough extra portions to cover the next two days of the week. Once this has been mastered, she may wish to do another big cook-up on Wednesday, or just expand her Sunday food production to cover more days of the week. The emphasis here is on making small, manageable steps towards your ultimate goal.
As founder of the Vertical Diet (used by Hafthor Bjornson – the Mountain from GOT- and many more), powerlifting champion and professional bodybuilder Stan Efferding says, ‘don’t let the great get in the way of the good’.
Something good is better than nothing great.
As with the SMART goals formula, it is sensible to make your goals time-related.
In my view, this is more important for the sub-goals than the broader goal. Taking the example above, if our busy Mum can keep to a target of, say, eating one more home-cooked meal each week, then very quickly she will reach the overall goal of eating more than 80% of her calories from whole foods.
Small steps will see your goals
I’d like to expand on something I touched on above – the idea of incrementalism, or change by degrees. In what is rapidly becoming a personal cliché, I simply cannot overstate the incredible power of small improvements. As Jordan Peterson argues in his book, 12 Rules for Life, the effects of small steps are compounded over time. Because each small step builds on the last, a snowballing effect occurs, with the results rapidly becoming vastly greater than we could have predicted at the outset.
Small steps > Paradigm shifts
I want to place particular emphasis on the power of small steps because it is at this time of year that people often try to make paradigm shifts, that is, they try to revolutionise themselves. This is implied in the ‘new you’ element – not a better you, not an improved you, but a completely different version.
A paradigm is a model or way of understanding the world, it is a framework or lens through which we make sense of reality.
Paradigm shifts occur regularly throughout the world.
The abolition of slavery? A paradigm shift in the way society viewed different races.
The legalisation of homosexuality? A paradigm shift in the mainstream view of sexual practices.
Female suffrage? You get the picture.
Paradigm shifts are so appealing because they are so powerful. They are broad. They are radical.
There is great temptation in the idea of creating a completely new version of ourselves, of radically changing our lifestyle. This is largely a manifestation of impatience. We see things we don’t like, things we want, ways we wish we were. And we want them. Now. again, the intention here is noble. We want to improve ourselves immediately.
The problem is, this doesn’t really work.
If it did, the term ‘yo-yo dieting’ wouldn’t exist. We also wouldn’t see millions of people flocking to purchase gym memberships in January, only to stop going by mid-Feb.
The gritty reality of paradigm shifts
What is often missed in discussions of paradigm shifts is the years of history that led to that point. Paradigm shifts are many years in the making. People didn’t just suddenly wake up one day and decide it was fine for women to vote. The road to female suffrage was paved with the deaths of suffragettes and the hard-won victories of thousands of determined women (and men).
In personal development, paradigm shifts do happen. I have experienced several in my life. One of the most influential was when I realised I was unhappy being chubby (aged 14) and that the only person who could get me out of this situation was me. At such moments, there is great exhilaration. There is the rush of a brighter future. What follows, however, is the daily grind of making that vision become a reality.
Inspiration, perspiration, actualisation
Lots of people have great ideas. They are ten a penny.
What is rare is the desire and fortitude – grit some might say- to take the necessary actions.
(For more about grit – see this great post I wrote breaking it down.)
The founder of virtue ethics, and a former intellectual adversary of mine, Aristotle, wrote about the power of habit over 2000 years ago in his famous ethical treatise, The Nicomachean Ethics. To Aristotle, a man is the sum of his habits. A man is what he repeatedly does. In one of the only poetic lines you will find in his entire body of work, Aristotle sums this up beautifully: “For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day”.
Or as the man who turned down poet laureate, one of Hull’s finest, Philip Larkin wrote in the poem Mr Bleaney: ‘how we live measures our own nature’.
We are all desperate for the paradigm shift. It enchants us. The reality of personal change, however, is that if we want to do anything meaningful and sustainable, we must start by changing the things we do everyday. We must start with small steps towards better habits.
This is more realistic and is likely to lead to changes you will actually stick to.
Take one step forward each day, and there’s no telling where you’ll be tomorrow.
Happy new year!