As someone who was born in January, I have a unique advantage. I get to renegotiate my New Year’s Resolutions with myself in case I fall off the wagon before my birthday (which happens to be the 22nd day of the month). Most people mess up way before that and I did too for a very long time.
Another popular trend is to look down upon people who even have new year’s resolutions. I have no respect for those haters either. Everybody deserves a chance to start afresh and make promises to themselves. Some of us do it on Monday mornings. Some on our birthdays. Some on an arbitrarily chosen day of a badly-designed Calendar. To each their own. My goal here is not to argue with the concept of resolutions but to help you form new, good habits and get rid of old ones.
Aristotle is believed to have said “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
We are what we repeatedly do. Let that sink in.
How to frame resolutions
First, let’s talk about framing resolutions the right way. A post I read a long time ago by Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert has had a profound impact on how I think about this subject. Scott talks about the superiority of systems over goals.
I don’t want to delve into jargon and confuse you or myself. Let’s take an example both of us understand well. Weight loss.
Here’s how a goal would look – I will lose 9 kgs of fat by December 25th 2018 by eating healthy and going to the gym 5 days a week.
Here’s how a system would look – From this day onwards:
I will eat only when I am hungry
I will stop eating before I feel full
I will eat mostly plant-based food
I will not consume anything with added sugar
I will drink a liter of water every day upon waking up
I will take the stairs when I have the time and option
I will move my body every day at a level that feels comfortable
Which of the two approaches do you think will work? A systems approach is a codified set of rules that you will start following without having to exert your willpower at all. To give you another personal example, I’d bring up a stoic principle that plays the role of a system in my life.
Every occurrence or event can be divided into two categories. Ones that I have control over and ones that I don’t. I only worry about the things I have control over. The stuff I have no control over doesn’t affect me or my sleep schedule.
Self image and identity
The next important part of this equation is self image.
“The part of you that knows is not the part that controls your behaviour. Long term habit change is never the result of a strong willpower. Long term results are always, always equal to your self image. ” – Bob Proctor
Your self image is what you think of yourself as. Do you think of yourself as rich? Do you think of yourself as fit? If you close your eyes, do you see a version of yourself who has flab around the waistline or a version with a flat tummy or maybe even well-defined abs?
Here’s how this bit ties into the equation. If your self-image is a weak one, your mind convinces you to revert to whatever your self image is irrespective of how much progress you make towards your goal image.
Let me simplify this by giving you a personal example. The first time I began to get into the “fitness lifestyle” I was not at my most confident self. My self image was that of a weak, fat, broke-ass individual. Let’s stick to the fitness bit – because I thought of myself as a weak and slightly chubby person in my head, my mind started freaking out when I started leaning down. When I went down from 86 kilograms to 74 kilograms, my mind decided that I was headed in the wrong direction. If I slimmed down further, my self image would not match with reality. So, it started speaking to me via the “voice of reason” – “You’re losing muscle mass as well. Start eating more” “You will look super skinny. Is this what you want? Don’t you want to look fit and healthy? Eat that pizza” “What’s the point of working out if you won’t go out and meet friends? Go have those beers.”
I caved in and went back up to 78 kilos. Flabby and further away from my goal physique. Why? Because my self image did not match my ideal image. This and the fact that I didn’t have a system to fall back on without having to think or exert my willpower led to my failure.
The self image bit about habits can also be simplified by making it a part of your identity. I was raised a vegetarian and always had that tag as part of my identity. Over the course of my life, I’ve been at hundreds of tables and events where meat was served. Did I partake? Nope. Why? Because being vegetarian is part of my identity. I don’t have to think about whether I want to consume meat. I already know that it doesn’t match my identity.
Want to eat healthier? Make ‘fitness enthusiast’ part of your identity and not just your Twitter bio. Once you tell enough people that you’re watching what you eat or that your identity is that of a “gym rat” – things just fall in place and become easier.
Develop mini habits and pair them with the right triggers. One of the biggest mistakes one can make while trying to change habits or lifestyles can be trying to do too much at once. You’ve been a couch potato all your life and now, suddenly you want to start going to the gym 7 days a week starting on January 1st? How long do you think that is going to last?
A more balanced approach is to look for mini habits that are tied to the right anchors. For example, make it a habit to do 3 body-weight squats immediately after you take a leak. Most individuals pee 7 to 10 times a day. Imagine what 21-30 body-weight squats every day will do to your body. There’s an avalanche effect. You don’t have to keep reminders to do this. Your body has to excrete water and toxins. You’ll start eating healthier just so that these squats become easier.
Pick mini habits that help you get past the fear of starting something new. A good trick is to tie the new habit to an existing habit that you take for granted.
My personal list of habits and systems
I try to follow most of these on a daily basis. How good my day is depends on how many of these I am able to check off the list.
- A bottle of water as soon as I brush my teeth in the morning – This one is pretty self-explanatory. I need to flush out a bunch of toxins accumulated overnight. Hydrations helps me think better and stay healthier.
- No smartphone allowed while in the loo or at the dining table – Super hard to follow, but the impact is huge. While on the pot, it is very easy to get lost in a rabbit hole. The Internet is filled with temptation and our brains are always hungry for dopamine hits. Be it scrolling down your Twitter or Instagram feed or watching high definition pornography, these are habits that alter the very nature of how your brain works. My attention span is very dear to me and I have no intention of losing it over trivial things. At the dining table, I want to respectful of my family and friends. If I’m talking to you while eating, I want to be able to give you and the the food as much attention as need be.
- Mindfulness – I considered writing ‘meditation’ instead but that wouldn’t be accurate. Meditation is one form of mindfulness training that has helped me and millions of others but that is not the only way. Mindfulness is the practise of being present and being aware. Are you dining? Good. Be aware of what you are putting into your body. Mindfulness is the opposite of being intoxicated. When you’re high or drunk you have no filters. You say what you feel like saying. You do what you feel like doing. You eat whatever is placed in front of you. Practise being the opposite of a drunk person and you’ll become healthier, wealthier, and wiser. I’d highly recommend starting with an app for guided meditation. Anywhere between 5 to 20 minutes a day would be a great start.
- Sleep schedule – I attempt to get 8 full hours of sleep a day. Ideally, I’d want to get this at one shot during the night, but I am reading up on the benefits of an afternoon nap and quite frankly, I enjoy them. So I try to incorporate an hour or so when I can. Sleep is never a waste of time if you’re truly getting rest. I keep my phone outside my bedroom or put it in airplane mode while going to bed in case I want to listen to a podcast or meditate.
- No social media apps on my phone – This one’s self-explanatory. I must admit that I have an app that helps me publish to multiple social networking sites at once. I do not have any way of accessing my newsfeed/timelines though. No Snapchat, No Instagram, No Twitter, and certainly No Facebook. I also turn off notifications on most apps.
- Reward systems and Pomodoro – I know that I have limited willpower and an attention span that is even worse. So I create systems that let me reward myself. I also use a modified Pomodoro technique. A pomodoro system is one where you work for 25 minutes straight and take a 5 minute break. I can’t manage 25 minutes, so I do a 10-3 split. Works beautifully. That’s how I managed to write this super long post.
- Predominantly plant-based diet – This is anecdotal in my case but there seems to be a bunch of research as well that shows that a plant-based diet helps with general wellbeing – both mental and physical.
- Exercise – I move my body every day. This can be as simple as going for a walk. On the good days, this means lifting heavy weights at the gym. The endorphins and the fitness are rewards by themselves.
- What would my future self think of this? – This is a question I’ve learned to ask myself a lot. When you watch or read interviews of successful people, they’re often asked “What advice would you give your 21-year-old self?” or some variant of that question. I like to flip that question around. What would an 80-year-old Nikhil think of or say if he saw what I am about to do? Would he approve of the time I am about to waste by watching cat videos? Would he say “Please go ahead and outrage on Twitter more – it’s helping my health” ? My future self wants me to do things today that will make him healthier, wealthier, and wiser. That’s a true north that helps me adhere to good habits today.
- Love and forgive yourself – One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the importance of self love. The world cannot love you if you do not love yourself. There will be errors and you will make mistakes. Do not stop loving yourself. Forgive yourself. Talk to yourself like you would talk to your best friend. We are all broken in different ways and perfect in so many more ways. Nobody has it all figured out and we’re always learning. Encouragement works better than criticism.
I hope these musings have helped you in one way or another. If you have a family member or friend who may benefit from reading this, please be sure to pass the lessons on. Like Derek Sivers says “If more information was the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
Very often we already know what to do, but we need some motivation to help us get there. I hope this post serves as a nudge towards the right direction. I’m always a ping away if you need any help. If you like the content or my style of writing, you might enjoy ‘Jois of Life’ – my weekly email that contains reading recommendations, podcast suggestions, and commentary on topics such as productivity, leadership, and storytelling.