New Year, New You? Unlikely. I know I am still the same old me. However, as always, I am hoping I will be an even better version of me this year. My plan for 2021 isn’t anything lofty and overambitious, it’s just a list of things I want to start, stop and continue doing this year, small-ish habits that I want to fine tune: doing more of the things that nourish me and less of the things that distract me.
There was a time I used to go into every year with lofty aspirations. I’ve read all the self-help books around that talk about shooting for the stars, envisioning success, and transforming your life to become the person you want to be.
That’s all well and good but it just didn’t work for me. By all accounts my life was just fine. I was happy enough with how things were going but there was always this itch I couldn’t scratch. This dull ache that kept festering and rose to the top every time I stopped to think and gave myself space to actually reflect on things. It would go away when I filled my days with activities but it was never actually gone. I knew something had to be done to treat the ache for good. However, every well-intentioned attempt at fundamentally transforming my life fell through after the first few highly motivated days.
Here was the fact of it: I hadn’t figured out how to sustain my motivation. It was all starts and stops; all or nothing. And it wasn’t working.
The key to sustaining motivation is to build habits that stick. And habits have to be inherently small to sustain over time.
Let’s break this down. I have always wanted to be a writer. I was writing short stories and poems before I even discovered teenage angst. And then I stopped writing for about a decade. I wrote absolutely nothing. Well not, nothing, I wrote for work, I wrote emails, but nothing that got me creatively juiced. My dream is to be a published author some day, but to go from not writing for a decade to being a published author seemed like a daunting ask, even for the lion-hearted. And I am no lion. I am reasonably motivated, but not overly so. I have all the trappings of a human weighed down by fears: fear of failure, judgment, ridicule, you name it, I have it.
So what was I going to do about it?
I started somewhere.
You have to start. That is the first step; it doesn’t have to be the biggest, boldest step, it just has to be a start. For me, it was enrolling in a writing workshop. That workshop got me out of my decade-long dry spell and got me writing again. It wasn’t earth-shattering work, but it was something. Before I knew it, I was writing again.
Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.George Herbert
I also started a travel blog! It wasn’t the most polished, beautiful thing on the planet, not in the slightest like all the other travel blogs I would find and admire and would never fail to intimidate me. But again, it was something. It was a start. And slowly but surely, I started writing more and filling up the proverbial pages of my blog.
Do not wait until the conditions are perfect to begin. Beginning makes the conditions perfect.Alan Cohen
OK, now I was getting started, but what about following it through? The struggle was so real! I was starting a lot of interesting pieces but not finishing them. I had a lot of beginnings with no ends. So I set myself a small goal; to produce one finished piece I could submit to a travel community website.
And I sat with it.
I sat with the piece until it was over, or at least over enough. Because here is what I realized: the biggest barrier to follow through is the fear of failure and judgement. What if I finished the thing and it turned out to be terrible? What if I put it out there and I was ridiculed? Would I then have to face the harsh reality that I may never be good at this? To combat this large fear, it helped me to think small. Maybe you aren’t going to publish that book but maybe you can write something short and put it out there into the world. And that act alone is a self-sustaining force.
It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.Albert Einstein
I aimed for completion, not perfection.
That first piece got published on the website which was a small win. That piece was hardly my best work, but when I let go of the idea that it had to be, I was able to see it through. Seeing it through was confidence building in its own way. I did it once, so I knew I could do it again. I finished a few more pieces and put them out there for the world to see.
When you complete something, it’s already a magnificent thing.
You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear.Sammy David, Jr.
Alright, so I was writing and I was finishing, all good, but I still didn’t have a regular writing practice. It was a lot of starts and stops.
It wasn’t until I read the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg that I figured out the next thing I had to do. What I loved about the book was that it broke down habits into a 3-part loop that could be tinkered with to change any behavior and sustain that change. Set up a cue, practice the ritual, reap the reward. Duhigg also talks about the idea of a keystone habit. Think of it as the mother of all habits; one habit that changes others. For example, if you build a regular exercise habit, you are also likely to eat better and save more money. Keystone habits can spark “chain reactions that help other good habits take hold,” Duhigg professes.
Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.Vince Lombardi
I found a habit I wanted to change.
I decided to start waking up at 5am everyday. You might wonder what waking up at 5am has to do with writing regularly. The connection is not obvious, but I picked the thing that I knew was hard for me to do but was small enough to change and sustain. However, there was some method to my madness. A lot of research shows that early mornings are some of our most creative hours. And as someone with a job with long hours that takes up a lot of mental energy, I knew the only way to make time for creative writing was to wake up earlier and get to it before my email started exploding all over my day.
You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.John C. Maxwell
You might be thinking to yourself that you are not a morning person, and waking up at 5 a.m. is out of question. It’s not for everyone. Figure out what other habit you can change. Duhigg talks about how he changed his habit for reaching for a chocolate chip cookie everyday around 3 p.m. at work and instead used that time to go chat with his colleague to take a mental break. I don’t claim you will become the best writer in the world if you stop eating chocolate chip cookies, but you will build your confidence in your ability to sustain something over time. And slowly but surely, it will change your life. Waking up at 5 a.m. everyday has changed my life. I now journal every morning and free-write for at least 20 minutes.
What small step can you take to reach that oversize goal? Start somewhere?
What one thing that you started can you see through? Sit with it and finish that one thing you have been putting off.
What small habit shift can you make this year? Pick one thing meaningful enough but not so big that it paralyzes you.