You might be asking yourself: why is a doctor telling me to lower my expectations? It’s because I have been the one who has tried and failed, year after year, to achieve my resolutions. I’m not alone in this, either, as upwards of 92% of people who set resolutions do not “see their resolutions through until succession1.”
Changing your life does not happen completely overnight. It comes, rather, as a result of habit stacking. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, defines habit stacking as “a special form of implementation intention2.” Habit stacking is not random, but intentional. Small goals are paired alongside existing routines for nearly invisible, hopefully effortless change.
When deciding on these goals, understand that they should be so ridiculously easy that you know, without a doubt, that you can achieve them. I’ve adopted this philosophy in my own life prior to understanding what habit stacking was. In the transition between high school and college, I was out of shape. I was a dedicated basketball player prior to this shift but only in the context of my varsity team. Once my routine shifted, I did not understand how to re-integrate physical activity into my busy schedule on a regular basis. There was no coach or plethora of teammates to hold me to a high standard of physical fitness; so, I made myself a promise: I would spend at least one minute per day in my school’s gym. Even if all I did was walk in, linger, and walk out, I made just the act of showing up a priority. To no one’s surprise, I always exceeded my seemingly silly one minute commitment. The low standards of this habit were enough to justify honoring my promise to myself, even on days when I was overwhelmed in other aspects of life.
So, how can we apply an understanding of our limited selves toward goal-setting?
Number One: Ask yourself what you can do, realistically
- Five push-up each day
- Five sit-ups each day
- Going out for a one-minute walk
- Read five pages everyday of that book that has been gathering dust on your shelf
- Tailor the rings on your Apple Watch to your schedule so that they are closed everyday
This is not a cohesive list of habits that should be practiced simultaneously. This is a list of various options from which you can choose.
Number Two: Get used to the Dopamine rush
The most important aspect of attaining habits is the dopamine rush that comes with achievement. This momentum launches you toward higher achievements like a football team on a win-streak right before playoff season. Let’s say you walked 5,000 steps a day for a whole month; however, in the last ten days, you accidentally made it to 8,000 consistently. Maybe it is time to re-evaluate your goals at this point of achievement, to push yourself in a way that you can sustain for a period of time.
Number Three: Do not let failure define you
Without moving in increments, you risk failure. This failure results in dissatisfaction in your self-improvement and a detrimental return to old habits. Do not let a single day, or even a week, define your progress. Do not be afraid of letting go of habits that are too lofty, there is no shame in being acutely aware of the space you are occupying.