According to a survey conducted by Statistic Brain early in 2017, out of the 40% American respondents who make New Year’s Resolutions, a mere 9.2% felt they were successful in achieving their goals.
So if you’ve been feeling crappy about yourself for not having enough willpower to see your goals through till the end, know that it’s an epidemic and you’re not alone in this.
Personally though, I never derive much comfort from being part of a huge group.
There’s an expiry date on how long one should wallow in self-pity. The important thing to know is – what are we doing wrong and how can we fix it so we can be part of that 9.2%?
1. Willpower is a limited resource
You see, like many things in this world, willpower is a limited resource. Think of it as energy. You can only do so much physical and mental activity before your eyelids start to droop at the end of the day and every horizontal surface looks like a good place to lie down and sleep.
Similarly, willpower can only be drawn upon for so many goals before you lose your patience and start doing things you really shouldn’t, like binge watching three seasons of your favourite TV show over the weekend or scarfing down half a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts in 30 minutes just because you missed one gym session and you already feel like a loser anyway.
The only difference is when our willpower is slipping, we blame ourselves for not being strong enough. But if you’ve been up for two days straight, will you blame yourself for feeling sleepy?
The first step to self-betterment is to stop kidding ourselves about the nature and source of our willpower. Even superheroes have limited self-control. If not they wouldn’t go on an angry, emotional rampage every time a bad guy decides to tease them with mini vandalism here and there in New York or Tokyo or Hong Kong (for some reason no monsters see it fit to come to Kuala Lumpur. What, we’re not metropolitan enough for you to destroy?).
We fail to see our goals through to the end because our willpower is limited. The problem lies not in how much willpower we have, but in how well we spend it.
How we spend our willpower depends on how many goals we have and how big they are.
2. Having too many goals is as good as planning to fail
It’s been five years now since I’ve made any promises to change myself for the better just because the Earth had completed yet another lap around the Sun.
I used to be one of those people who had to have at least ten things on my list of New Year’s Resolutions. The more I had, the better. Anything less would feel as if I wasn’t serious about improving myself.
Only after reading several books on habits and human behaviour did I figure out that having too many goals is a recipe for failure.
My resolutions are nothing out of the ordinary. In fact I’m sure a lot of people can see this in their own list of things to do.
- Exercise every day
- Eat healthy
- Lose weight
- Drink more water
- Save more money
- Read more books
- Spend more time with family
- Learn a new skill / language
- Be super cool when angry
- Do more volunteer work
Each item on the list needs consistency on a daily basis.
Roughly speaking, I need to wake up early to exercise for one hour, eat a self-made healthy breakfast, remind myself to consistently drink enough water to reach the recommended two litres a day, pack lunch from home so I don’t have to spend money on an expensive lunch, muster enough willpower to say no to my colleagues when they invite me to join them for lunch and dinner, read books at every opportunity I get instead of scrolling through social media and finally go home and practice on that new skill / language I’ve always wanted to learn. Over the weekend, I have to get my chores like laundry and grocery shopping and bills done quickly so I will have enough time to spend with all my family members who live in different houses, then rush to volunteer my time in whichever charitable cause I deem worthy. On top of that, I must hold back from making any unnecessary purchases so I will have enough to save by the end of the month and when someone makes an insensitive comment about a huge acne growing on my nose, I will assume Guanyin’s pose on a lotus and shower the shithead with petals of love, forgiveness and understanding.
How many times do you think I can repeat this before giving the universe both my middle fingers in quick succession and throwing my shoe in whichever general direction I think the universe’s face is at?
It’s absolutely ridiculous.
In a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow, a psychologist by the name of Daniel Kahneman explained the way humans process decisions using the ‘dual process theory’.
Simply put, humans have two ways in which they think – fast and slow. Things that you are used to goes into the ‘fast system’. These are easy things like answering ‘What is the colour of the sky’ or ‘What is 1 + 1’ (don’t be a prick and get all mathematical genius on me and try to prove the answer is 3).
The ‘slow system’ on the other hand processes information new to you. For instance, learning how to play the guitar for the first time or conjugating Arabic verbs as a newbie.
The slow system kicks into gear when we try to do difficult things. It’s not just when we learn new things. It comes into play when we are making a tough decision. Imagine at the end of a tiring work day after a customer had yelled expletives at you over something that wasn’t your fault, after wading through two hours of traffic jam and walking through heavy rain, you have to decide between exercise or fuck it.
If you haven’t guessed, the slow system draws its fuel from your willpower – that limited thing we discussed in point one.
The more difficult goals you have, the more you demand of your willpower. But once it runs out, that’s when your resolutions start turning to shit.
And that’s when you start thinking, “What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I so weak?”
Choose one goal.
3. You can still achieve all of your goals
Contrary to popular believe, choosing one goal does not mean you sacrifice everything else. There are creatures out there who look human but they are physically fit, mentally stable, eat celery during snack time, volunteer, are generous, don’t lose their shit, don’t watch TV, drink loads of water and have great relationships with family and friends.
How do they do it?
They’ve committed all of the things they want into the fast system we discussed in point two.
They make it look easy because right now it is easy for them.
But don’t think for a second that getting to that state was in any way easy.
In order to commit your goals to the fast system, it has to go through your slow system. But imagine the slow system like a small machine running on limited fuel that can only be replenished at the end of the day. Your slow system machine can only handle one goal at a time. If you put more than one goal into the machine, you will get two uncompleted goals.
Imagine you’re a patient person. So every day, instead of forcing the little slow system machine to swallow ten huge goals, you only focus on goal, say exercise every day.
After a few months, you discover that waking up early in the morning to exercise is no longer difficult. You’ve stopped using an alarm clock to wake yourself up in the morning and this one time you decided to skip exercise, you felt uncomfortable until you actually went out for a quick run.
When you start feeling this way, your goal to exercise has officially been moved to the fast system. In the fast system, exercise is no longer a question. It is a fact. It is no longer ‘Should I exercise today?’. It is ‘Time to exercise’.
So what happens when exercise has been successfully moved to the fast system and becomes a habit?
You little slow system machine is now free to process another new goal. Rinse and repeat until you’ve gone through all your goals.
And the thing is, not all goals take the same time to become a habit. Some things like exercise might take 3-6 months. Drinking a lot of water might take 2 months. Eating healthy might take 8 months. Learning a new language might take 1-2 years.
The point is, if you have 10 different goals, it might not necessarily take 10 years to go through. It might take much, much shorter.
And don’t forget the ripple effect from successfully creating a good habit. Personally for me, right after a good workout, the only thing I want is one litre of plain water. My appetite would be curbed and I wouldn’t be able to stomach any oily food. Exercising literally put me off unhealthy food.
If you’re not this lucky, don’t worry. If you find yourself especially talented at making a tray of chocolate brownies disappear after a workout session, ignore the annoying gits asking you, “What’s the bloody point?”
The point is, before this you don’t exercise and you like to eat brownies. Right now you exercise and you eat double the amount of brownies. Nothing comes without cost. Think baby steps, don’t punish yourself too hard about the brownies and keep exercising until it becomes part of your fast system.
Don’t stop until exercising becomes as necessary as sleeping or eating or showering. If you don’t shower that often, perhaps make that your top priority before exercise.
4. What is Goal Compatibility?
First, I made this term up. Second, goal compatibility is important to the success of your goals.
It’s really simple. How much do you give a shit about your goal(s)?
If you decide that you want to learn French because it sounds ‘cool’, it might not be enough. I think a lot of things are cool. I would love to be a good dancer, I want to sing well, I would love to get over my fear of acting and performing onstage, I want to learn calligraphy and I also want to learn to fly a helicopter. These are all extremely cool things in my head.
But I have so many things much more important to me than flying a helicopter. I want to be healthy first. I want my website to have more high quality content. I want to spend time with my family. I want to publish a book.
Humans are not always necessarily right about what makes them happy. This is why we fall in love with people who treat us badly, why we get addicted to harmful substances or becomes workaholics. We make bad decisions all the time because we don’t necessarily know ourselves that well.
But here’s to trying.
Drawing from a report called Five Ways to Mental Wellbeing published in 2008 by the New Economics Foundation as commissioned by the UK government, authors Owain Service and Rory Gallagher had made life easier for all of us in their excellent book called Think Small by adapting the contents of the report into five easy factors to improve wellbeing:
- Strengthening your social relationships
- Getting healthy and active
- Learning something new
- Being more curious and mindful of surroundings
- Giving to others
Basically, if you can tie your goals to any or all of the five factors above, achieving these goals will very likely improve happiness and wellbeing in the long term.
In order to know how compatible you goals are with your values, I’ve come up with the table below. You can do this table on a scrap piece of paper but if you want my excel file, you download it right below.
It’s a simplistic way of quantifying your subjective feelings, but what can I say, I love numbers.
5. Make it specific and break it down
There are whole books and research articles dedicated to discussing this, but let me try to explain it in a short few paragraphs. (If you’re interested, I highly recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
If someone tells you that in order to achieve immortality, you need to go to Tibet, you would probably ask ‘where in Tibet?’. If you’re anal about details like me, you would ask how long should you stay there, which date is convenient for the giver of immortality to meet me, what’s the secretary’s name and if there are any hidden charges and surprise clause you should know about.
Similarly, a goal needs specifics. The more detailed the specifics, the better. Let’s take learning a new skill as an example. I want to be good at playing the violin. I have some basics but I haven’t practiced in ages.
So first, I must define what is ‘good’? Do I want to play in the orchestra and travel around the world? Do I need to take exams and have formal certification?
To me, being good at violin means I can play my favourite songs to an undiscerning audience who would be impressed if they can recognise the piece I’m playing without covering their ears. Therefore, no exams are needed. I have no intention of becoming a professional. I just want to impress a bunch of family and friends at a barbecue party.
Then I have to determine the timeline in which I would like to reach this goal. I think learning to play one song well enough in 6 months is more than reasonable. I will practice for 45 minutes every day in 15-minute-slots. By the end of each week I must be good enough at something small. Since there are roughly 24 weeks in 6 months, I can break down the song into 24 manageable components.
On top of that, I must come up with contingency plans for ‘what if’ scenarios. What if I get a fever? Will I give myself a break? How do I make up for the missed sessions? What if I go travelling, should I bring my violin? What time of the day should I practice. Before breakfast? After lunch? After watching my favourite TV show? What should I do if I feel demotivated?
The more questions you ask yourself and the more realistic your answers to these questions, the higher your likelihood to meet your goals.
If you notice from the questions, they center around making the practice sessions work with your lifestyle.
If you have to travel a lot for work, then you need to create contingency plans to overcome this. If you know that you typically get lazy in the afternoon, then you should schedule your practice sessions in the morning or at night.
The key thing to remember is this: You’re not supposed to revamp your entire life to meet your new goals. You are supposed to make small, almost unnoticeable changes to your daily routines so that your new goals can seamlessly be integrated into your lifestyle.
For instance, being Muslim, I have to wake up before dawn to do my morning prayers, which takes 10 minutes tops. Between 6:00am and 8:30am when work is supposed to start, I used to just lounge around in bed until I have to take a shower. But when I included exercise into my routine, I arranged it in a way that right after waking up and doing my morning prayers, I will immediately exercise for 1 hour, take a shower, take my hot drink and be ready for work.
I already wake up early, so it’s simply a matter of filling that blank period with something to do. When I’m lazy, I will immediately put on my sports bra. After about 10 minutes, I will feel stupid walking around in a sports bra but not exercising, so I would always end up exercising. So far, it works well for me.
As you can see, simply choosing your goal and knowing what to do with it is already a huge task in itself. It’s not as simple as coming up with a list of goals and then expecting yourself to effortlessly reach all of them.
You are not weak-willed if you don’t meet your goals. Perhaps you’re just unprepared.
Goals may look simple, but the act of achieving it is literally a whole process of changing you daily schedules and routines, your expectations, your mind and your values. Human beings take a lifetime to become who they are.
Don’t expect to easily become a better person in one day. It doesn’t work that way.
If you think it takes a lot of hard work and focus and patience and concentration, then you’re doing it right.
PS: There’s a reason I’m publishing this in October and not in December. It’s so you have 3 months to get a head start on planning which goal you want to achieve come 2018.
And you know what? You don’t even have to wait for 2018. I question who came up with the idea in the first place, to promise to be better at the start of a new year, which is an arbitrary starting point anyway. There are so many different ways to measure the year – I just happened to be used to the Gregorian calendar.
If you want to start right now, then do it.
Time waits for no one, so why should you wait for time?