“When you see a new year, see realities and limit fantasies!”
― Ernest Agyemang Yeboah
It’s the new year, and most people have resolutions. Yet what I have learned from 2020 is that nothing is guaranteed. Now, most will think what I am saying is do not plan but that isn’t what I am saying. What I am saying is to plan for the worst and hope for the best, quit fantasising about a new you but rather work toward a better you.
I was talking to a mate who said to me his 2021 resolutions include getting rich, surprisingly quoting the 50cent album “Get Rich Or Die Tryn”. Whatever the reasoning is, it’s the new year and he has decided that the new him is going to be a Rolls-Royce-driving, bikini-pool-party throwing, Moet chugging Zimbo.
Now, if you approached trying to get rich as most people do, here’s how you would conceptualise it:
- Start out by making $100.
- OK, great, now let’s try to make $1,000.
- Snap, that was hard, but now let’s try to make it $10,000.
- You eventually get there. But now it’s three years later and the mere thought of working until you have $100,000 in the bank makes you want to give up all your possessions and go live in a monastery.
- You say “stuff it” and buy a 70-inch flat-screen TV. Ahh, that feels better.
- Dreams of bikini parties on your yacht evaporate. Along with most of your savings.
That’s how most people try to do it. And if you haven’t noticed, most people aren’t rich. In fact, most people are quite the opposite. This is not a coincidence. In case you haven’t read a few books on wealth accumulation, this is how people who actually get rich do it (and not end up in bankruptcy court like good ol’ Fiddy):
- Start out making $100.
- Invest that $100 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $1,000.
- Then, invest that $1000 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $10,000.
- Invest that $10,000 in skills/training/assets that will eventually net you $100,000.
- Invest that $100,000 until you’re balling on your yacht like a sheik from Qatar.
These are the two mindsets of building wealth. People who stay poor or middle class see money as something to be spent. People who become rich see money as something to be invested. You can call it the “spending mindset” versus the “investing mindset.” One gets you rich and one keeps you treading water, always fighting to keep your face above the surface.
So why am I going over all of this when the post is about resolutions? Because it applies to creating habits and achieving resolutions in life as well. In fact, it’s the exact same concept.
Resolutions vs Habits
Let’s take the most cliche and universal New Year’s Resolution of the bunch: “I want to lose weight and look sexy for summer.”
I think almost everyone has had this resolution at some point. In most cases, you recover from your New Year’s Eve binge on January 1st, sign up for the gym on January 2nd, force yourself to go 5-6 times over the ensuing months mostly out of guilt because you spent so much damn money and you feel like you should use it. But you have no idea what you’re doing. And my god, look at all of the skinny sweaty people here. Wow, I feel so lazy just watching them. Can this treadmill go any slower? I’m tired. I want a burger. Or maybe ice cream. Or maybe an ice cream burger.
And it’s February 1st and you’re back to body-melding yourself into the fabric of your sofa, watching awful Netflix reruns, and wondering how is it that all of your clothes seem to be shrinking at the same time. Yes. The struggle is real.
The problems with the conventional pursuit of goals in life (i.e. new year’s resolutions) are well-documented at this point.
People tend to rely too much on self-discipline and neglect forming useful habits. They tend to bite off more than they can chew, so to speak, setting goals that are far above their ability or knowledge level and then becoming frustrated when they make little to no progress towards them. People are tempted to take “shortcuts” to achieve a goal that may actually sabotage them in the long-run, like starving yourself to lose weight or cheating to get a good grade on a test.
That’s all true. But I’m here to suggest something else.People usually don’t focus on habits because goals sound much sexier in our minds. They feel more motivating at the moment when we think about them. Tweet Me
“Lose 20kg by summer” is a crazy goal to begin with. That’s because it’s borne from the same spending mindset that keeps people broke — or in this case, keeps them overweight. They view life in the overly-simplistic terms of “Do a lot of X, eventually get Y.” Just like forcing yourself to work and save for 20 years is unlikely to get you rich, forcing yourself to go to the gym dozens of times is unlikely to make you lose much weight and keep it off. Goals like these require an intense amount of effort, yet they never seem to “stick.” Eventually, your energy and discipline run out and you fall right back to the same person you were, except now you feel defeated.
That’s because it’s better to invest your limited focus and energy on building habits rather than specific resolutions. Just like you want to take the money you earn and put it to work for you, you want to take the effort you expend in changing yourself and put it to work changing you as well.
People usually don’t focus on habits because goals sound much sexier in our minds. They feel more motivating at the moment when we think about them. There’s a clear image of a certain result in our head and that gets us excited.
Habits, on the other hand, don’t sound as sexy in our heads. They’re long-term and repetitive, which makes them seem boring. And there’s no clear image one can imagine for “going to the gym every morning for a year” or “only drinking alcohol on weekends.” You don’t get this rush of inspiration imagining yourself eating salad for lunch every day. You don’t lay in bed at night fantasising about flossing every morning.
Resolutions are a one-time bargain. They are the spending mindset. “I will spend X amount of energy to receive Y reward.” Habits are an investing mindset. Habits require one to invest one’s efforts for a little while. And then take the rewards of that effort and re-invest them in a greater effort to form even better habits.
This is why so many people who lose weight end up gaining it back (and then some). They focus on singular goals in life rather than developing underlying habits. So when their energy and discipline runs out (and it always does because self-discipline is limited) they balloon back to their original selves.
With habits, on the other hand, there’s no single endpoint that must be reached. The only goal of habits is that the goal is never over. It’s a simple repetition that one does until muscle memory and brain chemistry kick in. And you’re now performing the desired action on autopilot. With goals, every day you go back to the gym feels harder. With habits, after a while, it feels harder to not go to the gym than it does to go.
Therefore, it is a better investment of one’s finite energy and discipline to focus on building habits. It’s fine to still have goals. Hell, I’d like to lose a few kgs by summer. But that’s not what my mind will focus on this year. Instead, I will look at the habits that underlie that goal. That would make that goal an inevitability. Like eating better, walking more often instead of taking an Uber, developing a workout plan — and then focus on those. The weight loss then naturally occurs as a side effect.
The Art of Compounding Habits
But here’s the kicker. Some habits are better than other habits because some habits, once acquired, make other positive habits much easier to acquire as well. For instance, quitting smoking is hard. But some data suggests that taking up some form of exercises such as jogging or biking can make it easier for someone to quit (probably because they’re hacking up a lung the whole time).
These are sometimes referred to as “keystone habits.” They are habits that, once adopted, will reverberate into other areas of your life, which makes acquiring other desirable habits more natural and require less effort. Unfortunately, researchers haven’t been so great at saying exactly which habits give the best returns and so you see a lot of moronic articles out there citing things like “just have more willpower!” because they heard this guy say it once and it sounded smart.
I like to think of keystone habits as “compounding habits” because, much like compounding returns on an investment, over a long enough period of time, they can increase the richness of your life exponentially. Goals, by themselves, generate linear growth and change. Habits are capable of generating exponential growth and change.
And in case you were bad at maths, here’s a quick example of the difference between linear gains and exponential gains over the long-run: Different habits have higher or lower interest rates, therefore making some habits far better initial investments of your energy and discipline than others.
The One Word Factor
Another reason why typical New Year’s Resolutions suck is because of the time horizon. If I say something like, “I want to write another book this year,” it becomes that much easier for me to put off starting the goal until June, July, or whenever, at which point it becomes almost entirely unfeasible.
Research shows that habits only need about 30 days of consistent effort to install themselves into our brains. At that point, they begin to become automatic. So screw New Year’s resolutions because they are restricting and constricting. One year is too short to build life skills that actually change you but one word can do more for you. Words such as PURPOSE, SURRENDER, SERVE, PRAY, RISE, FORGIVE, LEARN, ROUTINE, CONNECT, GROUNDED, and EXPAND. These words will shape and mould you into a better individual than any goal can.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be something I have mentioned but it has to be something that resonates with you. Instead of saying ” I want to lose 20kgs for summer” you would rather say my word of the year is HEALTHY. This means even if gyms close, or even if you do not lose the 20kilos you are not going to feel defeated because the goal was to be healthy and not a number.
To help you get started ask yourself a few questions. What do you want to focus on this year? Or what’s in the way? What do you need more or less of? 9 out of 10 people will fail with their resolutions. 50% of resolution makers will fail by the end of January. But One Word sticks! There’s no number to it, it’s an investment to the future you and it will compound in a way resolutions cannot.
Hopefully, by now, you’re starting to see the matrix. And you’re starting to understand why you’ve failed to achieve so many goals you’ve set for yourself in the past.
Setting a goal like, “I want to lose 20kg for my wedding” or “I want to get a promotion this year,” and then forcing yourself to just do a bunch of things until it happens is akin to saying, “I want a million dollars,” and then deciding to work 120 hour work weeks until you get there. It is almost certainly going to make you miserable and burn you out. And even if you do get there, like a person who wins the lottery and immediately spends it all, you’re guaranteed to lose it soon after.
The correct way to make a million dollars, as we discussed, is to start small and then intelligently re-invest what you’ve earned, so stop trying to scale linearly and instead scale exponentially.
We’ve also seen that some habits scale more exponentially than others — i.e., some habits provide higher rates of return because they provide benefits that then make adopting subsequent habits easier. Therefore, it makes sense to use your energy to develop habits with the highest rate of return first, and then move on to other desired habits later.
There seems to be a bias in the world that underestimates what it takes to accomplish really big goals in life and overestimates the effort required to take on a series of small goals. In my experience, it’s the regular heartbeat of pursuing and nailing small wins that eventually leads to the big ones. In fact, I’ve often found that becoming so intent on the small simple daily victories often causes one to not even realise one of the big goals has occurred until it’s already passed you by. This, too, is a habit. And I would argue it’s an incredibly compounding one at that.
My word for 2021 is SERVE… In whatever capacity, in whatever way I see necessary I shall serve. And this doesn’t mean spreading myself too thin. It means putting my talent and creativity to make my sphere of influence and environment better.
What is your word for 2021? Share it with us in the comments section or email us, we would love to hear from you. As always, hope you and yours are safe. Let’s Go!