It’s mid-March and your New Year’s resolutions have probably converted from hope into guilt just as quickly as a donut converts carbs into body fat. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I want to share a few tips for becoming more self-disciplined so you can stick to the commitments that matter.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been playing around with resolutions (my version is themes), personal accountability, and habit and I am enjoying the result. As I head off for a couple of weeks vacation, I thought I’d share a more personal post today in hopes that it might inspire you to recommit to your New Year’s resolution or even to make a new one—one that will stick this time.
For me, the two biggest changes in my life in the past couple of years are my dedication to a high volume of discretionary writing (at least 12 pieces each month) and a newfound commitment to physical fitness. I was reflecting on these accomplishments in a conversation with Craig last night and I realized that they both benefited from the same approach: using discipline to create habit.
I think these are really generalizable ideas, so I thought I would share them with you in hopes they will be useful.
Here’s what I’ve figured out so far.
Use your calendar
We are over-scheduled with calendars full to the brim. But most of the time your calendar is used to let other people get what they need from you. Why not use your calendar to schedule time for when you need you. I’ve done away with a to-do list now and instead I take action items straight into an appointment in my calendar. I’m a slave to my smart phone, so if it says I’m supposed to be writing, I’m writing. When my daughters’ dance competitions overwrite my normal Saturday workout, I immediately squeeze a new gym appointment somewhere else in the week to ensure I get 4 workouts in.
Use a timer
When my life as an author and speaker started to heat up a few years ago, my boss paid for 6 sessions with a professional organization coach, for which I’m forever grateful. One of the techniques that stuck with me is to time icky tasks. I take things that I don’t relish doing and set a timer for 30 minutes. Then it’s like I’m on a game show, trying to beat the clock to get it done. I can do 30 minutes of almost anything…especially if there’s a prize like [use your best Price is Right announcer voice] “a brand new cup of tea” at the end. I use the timer trick at the gym too. If I’m having a low-energy day, I allow myself to do 30 minutes instead of 45. I even have a special, high-energy 30-minute playlist for those occasions. Then I see just how far I can go.
Send your brain subtle cues
I use this technique all the time. At home, I work out in the afternoon and on weekends, but when I’m facilitating out of town, evenings are usually full with meetings and dinners. So when I’m in a hotel, I set the alarm for 5:30 and I head straight to the gym. My brain doesn’t even think about it anymore: hotel bed is hardwired to 5:30 workout.
In the same vein, I use the time on planes to write. My body just knows when the seatbelt sign bings, out comes my computer and I don’t stop until two or three posts are done. This approach turns activities into habits. I’m like Pavolv’s dog (thankfully I write at the sound of the bell rather than drool)! I don’t ask whether I’m “feeling it,” I just go on autopilot. You can do the same by wearing a certain tie or scarf or drinking a certain beverage on the day that you do your least favourite task . It’s amazing how the sensory connection hardwires habits into our brains.
Focus on how you want to feel, rather than what you want to do
If you need to do something you aren’t looking forward to, don’t focus on how uncomfortable the activity is going to be. Instead, think about how energized (or relieved, or proud) you’ll feel after you’re done. In this way, you’re looking through the task to the positive feelings afterward.
Don’t ask “did I like doing that task” only ask, “did I do it?”
I learned this trick when I took up running. Hard core runners kept asking me “do you love it?” or more commonly, “don’t you LOVE it!?” My answer then (and today) is “NO, I DON’T LOVE IT, IT’S HARD, IT HURTS, I GET SWEATY! WHAT’S WITH YOU RUNNING PEOPLE!!!” So, two years ago, I banned the question of whether or not I like running. Now I only allow the question “did I run this week?” The answer allows me to answer emphatically in the affirmative!
Three years ago, I couldn’t run a quarter mile without stopping and I procrastinated each time I had something to write. But now exercise and writing are just part of my routine. I don’t question them, I just do them. My track record isn’t 100%, but it’s probably over 90. I feel good because I know I can count on myself. I hope you’ll try some of these tips to create positive habits for you.