Make Your Last Ever New Year’s Resolution

Make Your Last Ever New Year’s Resolution

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A few years I ago I made one last New Year’s resolution. I resolved to never make another resolution again. The good news is that, so far, I have defied the odds and actually achieved that one!

The bottom line is – New Year’s resolutions rarely work. In fact, research highlights that just 12% of people who make resolutions actually achieve successful outcomes. Not good odds, nor worth dedicating significant amounts of your precious time.

Nowadays, I use the New Year as a time of reflection and re-creation, rather than for making resolutions. I learnt this the hard way. I used to make New Year’s resolutions by optimistically planning to achieve things that required willpower. As the statistics suggest, I used to fail an awful lot, and I never knew why. The world around me was very much attuned to confirm that I failed because I lacked willpower and was lazy. A big part of me used to believe this, and  like so many other people, I did not feel good about it.

It wasn’t until I embraced my hard-wired weaknesses and focussed on developing systems designed to suit them that I started to make a big impact on my life. The way to succeed is not to design goals that will work on your best days, but design them to work on your worst days. That takes willpower out of the equation.

Our working memory has limited capacity, and we need considerable ‘brain power’ to maintain and process information – like being determined not to eat chocolate, or remembering to exercise every morning. Willpower just doesn’t work over the long term because it actually requires an awful lot of cognitive load to maintain it. And this is why New Year’s resolutions don’t work for the majority of people. It only takes a setback or a bad day, and your will can be broken. Once broken, it becomes easier and easier to break next time, usually to the point to where the resolution itself is forgotten.

A typical new year resolution I might have made in the past would be: “This year I am going eat healthy food, exercise more and manage my stress.” My chances of long-term success would be 0%. It would work for a few days in a bad year, and even for a few weeks in a good year – but it would never become a permanent change. There is just far too much to think about and maintain when the goals are so wide and woolly.

If I have a desire for change nowadays, my approach is to select to do the smallest thing that will make the biggest difference. Each month, I choose just one thing, and give it the whole month of focus to form it into a permanent keystone habit. Habits form in a different part of the brain, and therefore they do not provide cognitive overload. Established habits don’t require willpower to maintain, which is the key to making permanent changes without the need for you to think about it.

So, if I wanted to make the same transformation (eat healthy food, exercise more and manage stress) today, here is an example of how I would approach it now:

Month 1 Tiny Keystone Habit Introduction

Do 10 short all-out sprints, either standing or running, as soon as I get out of bed (Total time 5 minutes)

Month 2 Tiny Keystone Habit Introduction

Take 3 deep breaths when I wake up in the morning (Total time 1 minute)

Month 3 Tiny Keystone Habit Introduction

Have a protein and fat based breakfast within an hour of waking up (Total cooking and eating time 5 minutes)

All 3 of the examples shown here are based on huge amounts of personal research and self experimentation, looking into some of the most effective small changes out there. They go against common thinking, but if you look at emerging research, you will find that much of what is commonplace is being challenged.

These are the combined benefits of these 3 keystone habits alone:

  • Builds up my fitness over time

  • Increases happiness and wellbeing

  • Reduces stress

  • Massively increases my productivity

  • Improves brain performance

  • Reduces cognitive overload

  • Improves the immune system

  • Improves sleep

  • Improves willpower

  • Reduces food cravings during the remainder of the day

  • Provides a platform for wanting to do more exercise and eat healthier

  • Radically reduces the long term risks of many common diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes etc

  • Increases life expectancy

And all for consistently implementing 11 minutes’ worth of new habits over a 3 month period! Surely this habit implementation is worth the effort, even on the very worst of days?

It is important to realise that this approach can be applied in absolutely any dimension. The important thing is to look for the keystone to change first. For example, if you want to give up smoking, focus for a month on just eliminating that first cigarette after breakfast. Form and embed the new habit. Then, the next month, focus on building the next new habit. If you want to use your smartphone less, maybe for the first month, focus on charging it outside the bedroom – or further from your reach – and build from there.

Keeping new habits small and high impact, and implementing them one by one is important. Embracing, accepting and innovating for your worst days and tailoring tasks to your biggest weaknesses are key to living your best life. Introducing 1 new tiny keystone habit every month over a 5 or 10 year period can allow huge changes in your life that can really take you to terrific places.

That is where the real opportunity lies and why I recommend that you forget about one-off resolutions and look to living in a permanent state of small-scale evolution. If you’re going to make one last resolution at all – resolve to do this. Then, you will actually have a much better chance of succeeding.

I would love to hear what small change you are going to make this month, or how your small changes will lead to your biggest goals. Let me know in the comments box below.

Change is for life, not just for New Year! Enjoy the continual process, and let’s hope it makes 2014 your best year yet!


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  1. Marc,

    Again, ya got me thinking here.

    I was reading William James’ book (volume 2) yesterday, focused in on the section of “Habits.” (In fact, my podcast next Friday will touch this topic as well.) One of my fav quotes from this chapter:

    “Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make…”

    Your note above really makes me think about how you’re setting up for success: Every “tiny” experiment starts in the morning. I think your focus on health and wellness is great, and I’m going to add in that it really could be ANYthing that we do early in the morning. Start each day by doing one “tiny” thing; there’s a carry over effect to implementing this kind of focused, deliberate, meaningful action.

    Thanks for giving us somethin’ to think about today! Happy New Year…

  2. I think highlighting the fact that the morning is the best time is really interesting. Willpower to implement a new tiny habit is likelier to be higher after sleeping. Thanks for adding to the idea and have a great 2014!

  3. I found this strategy to be incredibly effective:
    (18 minute TEDx talk by BJ Frogg, Head of Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab)

    For those without 18 minutes to spare (it really is worth it), here’s the three principles he outlines for forming new habits:

    1) Use triggers. A trigger is something you already do habitually (waking up, eating lunch, brushing your teeth, going to the bathroom) that you can “pin” your new habit to. That way, instead of saying ‘I have to do 10 pushups today’, you instead say ‘I will do 10 pushups after I brush my teeth’.

    I’ve found this to have two valuable effects:
    a) It reduces cognitive load, since I don’t have to worry about WHEN I will fit time into my day to do my habit
    b) It REMINDS me to actually do it!

    2) Make your habits TINY. I’ve found the key here is to make your habit so easy that you would feel silly not doing it. My habit was to do 10 situps every morning. Even on days when my motivation was waning, what pushed me through was the thought of how stupid I would feel not taking the literally 10 seconds to do it. This was also helpful since I could do it anywhere (I was doing a lot of traveling when I was first starting this habit).

    3) Reward success. This part seems silly, but it’s incredibly useful. You need to congratulate yourself for taking the time to do your habit. BJ Frogg’s suggestion is, literally, to just strike a triumphant pose and say “I’m AWESOME!”. Again, it sounds silly, but it works.

    The cool thing about tiny habits is that once they’re ingrained, you can start building on them. I found that once I was doing 10 situps without using willpower, it was easy to go to 15, then 20, then 25, then 30. I now do about 10 minutes of yoga every morning, while listening to my Carl Sagan audio book (yeah, I’m that guy).

    The other thing I recently incorporated that helps is the Don’t Break the Chain method.

    Basically you print out a calendar onto your wall, and every day you do your habit(s) you put a big red X on that day. What’s great about this system is:

    1) It feels SO good to mark that X.
    2) It helps you map your progress.
    3) It is REALLY motivating to see a long unbroken chain of X’s.
    4) On days when I don’t feel motivated, I find it really helps to ask myself “Is today really the day I want to let the chain be broken? I am gonna have to look at this calendar ALL YEAR.”
    5) I told my partner what habits the chain represents, and she can see it too. That way, I know that SHE will know if I fail.

    Finally, on quitting habits, I’ve found it really useful to play to my weaknesses.

    For instance, do anything you can to raise the bar (the activation energy) to do the thing you’re trying to quit.

    If you’re trying to quit smoking, put your cigarettes in a drawer somewhere, and put your lighter in a different drawer on the other side of the house. If you really want them, you can go get them, but it feels like so much more work that it will often deter you. Likewise, if you want to watch less TV, take the batteries out of the remote, and put the remote in another room. In its place, put a book you’d like to read. You’ll be surprised how often this helps.

    It’s also important to cut yourself some slack. After all, you’re only human. Don’t just try to go cold turkey on something. You will almost certainly fail, and you’ll feel terrible about, and that shame will stress you out and drive you to continue feeding your bad habits in order to feel better.

    Instead, I’ve found it really helpful to follow this simple rule:
    Write down a list of 10 reasons why you want to quit something, and what you will gain from not doing it (eg. “I will have more energy.” “I will spend more time with friends.” “I will have more time for my projects.”).

    Then, make a promise to yourself that, if you’re going to give in to temptation, that’s totally okay, but you have to READ YOUR LIST FIRST. That’s it. Read the list, then go do it. It’s surprising how often this will deter you and keep you on the path you’ve set for yourself.

    (I keep my list hosted on a free blog, that way it’s accessible from anywhere I have an internet connection. Other folks may want to keep it in their pocket.)

    It’s also incredibly important to be kind and forgiving with yourself. If you slip up, forgive yourself. Don’t let your shame spiral out of control. Just accept it as it is, and soberly analyze what were the factors involved that led to the slip. It’s key to then use that knowledge to avoid future slips. As the saying goes “Turn bad days into good data.”

    Soooo, that was more than I’d expected to write, but I hope people find it useful. And Marc, I think you’re totally on the right path. After all “Habits are things we get for free.”

    Happy New Year!

  4. This way of approaching the gradual development of habits is time-tested, and quite effective.
    The foundation for any change, though, lies in one’s awareness and recognition of what your values are and to what extent you are willing to commit to living out of them.

    Kelly Adams

    • I couldn’t agree more though Kelly although my experience was that it was keystone habits that opened a crack in the door to thinking that it was possible to live my values.

  5. Scott Moskowitz says

    So…Jason Womack ( sent me here and I am glad I came!! This was a great post and I can combine this with a TEDx I saw, but forgot about. I was driving when I watched a TEDx talk on this topic by BJ Fogg. He even has a website Because I remember it “now”, the tiny keystone habit I would like to incorporate into my life is to take 1-2 minutes and write down key points from whatever I listen to while driving. Even if it is a note that I really need to listen to it again, I will consider it a success. This requires keeping a smalll journal and pen in the car, which is no problem. Taking a moment, just a minute or two to “solidify” my learning will be worth the time. Again, thanks for the post. I joined your mailing list. I hope to learn more from you.

  6. You are awesome! (Seriously!)

  7. Professor Winn! This article was outstanding and right on time. I’m kicking off my “No More Feeble Resolutions” program this afternoon, during which I’ll cover the “Power Of Habit” (Charles Duhigg).

    What you’ve laid out here is also fully confirmed by Leo Babauta’s journey (ZenHabits)…a former smoker, crappy eater and Dad of 6 who has transformed his life (as well as millions of his readers lives) thru focusing on habits.

    Love what Kelly added above about our values. You’ve likely had to do hardcore value assessment this past year which is always The Secret Sauce in conquering even the smallest of habits. The habits become who you are, which build confidence to tackle bigger habits.

    Love it. Spot on and THANKS for the stats.

    Gonna quote you all over the damn place today.


    • Thanks KC. It was actually learning this stuff that allowed me to feel that I could achieve the things that I have never achieved. The knock on impact of that is that I could become who I really was. I hope the program is going well.


  8. During the last month I managed to establish the following habits and documented them in a tiny game called habit RPG:
    -After waking up, step on balcony and stretch in a winner pose
    -meditate 15min each morning
    -contact a friend
    -write down 5 good things that happened today

    I can recommend all of them. 🙂

  9. It’s amazing to pay a visit this web site and reading the views of all friends about this article,
    while I am also keen of getting know-how.

    • I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is required to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% sure. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. Kudos

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