How to Make the Greatest Start to Your Year

Vance MacEwen

A monkey staring at its reflection in a compact mirror it's holding
Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

January 4, 2021

Every day is the start of a new year. The 1st day of a calendar year, though, feels filled with potential. Use the new year’s potential to unlock yours. If you find yourself writing New Year’s resolutions and giving up on most of them by late January or February, you are not alone. I want to give you some helpful tricks I’ve learned over the years to make great new habits and get rid of habits that are holding you back.

Process over results

Compounding interest is every rich and successful person’s secret. You get rich by making your money make money for you. You get better at things by practicing regularly and often. James Clear popularized the continuous improvement approach: By improving at something just 1% every day, you will be 37 times better at it in a year.

Going cold turkey can work for ending bad habits, but building new ones requires finesse. Focus on your process, and the results will come. If you focus on results, you risk getting psyched out by every hiccup along the way. You don’t become a master without putting in many hours, and you can’t put all your hours in a single day. You know the aphorisms — “Rome wasn’t built in a day”; “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Put the principle into practice:

When you want to start a new habit, start small and you will achieve big. Let’s say you want to exercise regularly. If you go from zero to spending two hours lifting weights, you will not only be sore the next day but burn out quickly. It is far more sustainable to start with a small change and gradually build it up. Try stretching for 5 minutes and doing 5 minutes of cardio every day. You’ll soon hunger for more. As your process becomes second nature, your goals grow bigger. In a week you can do 10 minutes of cardio. In a year you’ll be flying and feeling grateful to yourself. The important thing is consistency. The results will come.

When we mortals strive for perfection, it often backfires. Mistakes happen — don’t let them derail you. The habit itself is more important than your performance on any given day. Internalize this. If you get your workout in, that is a victory. Getting your shoes on and making it to the (home) gym is huge. Don’t beat yourself up over going lighter or just doing cardio one day. The victory is from maintaining your good habit.

The rewards you’re looking for — weight loss, functional strength, a better figure, confidence, higher energy levels, improved sleep— those will come naturally with good habits. It’s counterintuitive, but you just focus on building the habit and the rest will fall into your lap.

Bundle new habits into your old ones

Creating new habits is hard. Getting rid of old habits is hard. Taking advantage of existing habits, however, is easy. Call it hacking, call it bundling — you can transform the inertia of habits into a strength. Here’s how:

If you want to add a healthy new habit to your life, set things up so your new habit simply joins an old one. For example, if you want to remember to bring a mask when you go outside, put it by your keys. You always take your keys before you walk out the door, so it’s simple to add another item to your everyday carry if you keep them in the same spot.

I used this trick successfully to watch less Netflix and read more books. I eat at least one meal at home every day, so I bundled reading in with eating. My old habit was making meals, taking them up to my room, and watching a Netflix show while I ate. All I had to do was put a book I wanted to read on the dining table and clear off everything else. I started sitting down right at the dining table instead of walking upstairs to my room. Reading was now bundled into my habit of eating, and I was spending less time behind screens. Success!

Bundling works. Check out the book Atomic Habits for more habit-optimizing tips and tricks — it’s a quick and valuable read. Self-mastery doesn’t have to be a pie in the sky goal. Learning how your mind and body communicate can unlock deceptively simple pathways to growth.

A forked dirt trail in a rich green forest
Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Make your undesired habits annoying to do

I’m lazy. I bet you can be, too. Hominids evolved in a world of scarcity. Our bodies and brains are hungry, and for ancient humans, acquiring food was risky — your food generally did not want to be caught and might fight back. “Work smarter, not harder” is in our bones.

At the same time, we are highly motivated to fulfill our body’s urges. If you’ve ever tried meditating, you know sitting alone with our thoughts is hard. We quickly find ourselves wanting to stretch, socialize, drink some water, get a snack, watch a funny video, etc. Our minds are noisy and our bodies are constantly sending us signals that they need something. Unfortunately, in modern times, we get a lot of signals asking for dopamine hits.

Dopamine is the short-term pleasure hormone. You get dopamine hits when you receive a Facebook notification, a like on Instagram, a chuckle from an internet meme, a level-up in a video game… Modern life caters to dopamine. If you doubt the power of dopamine, ask yourself if you’ve ever felt hungry, parched, headachy, or needing to go to the bathroom after being distracted by the internet. The pleasure center of the brain will push aside even basic needs.

A natural tendency to be lazy and a constant need for instant gratification sounds like a weakness. However, you can turn these traits into a strength.

By adding the effort required to do something, you make yourself less likely to do it. Apps like FocusMe transform laziness into productivity by making it difficult to access distracting apps and websites. A few years ago, I used FocusMe to kick an addicting video game to the curb. Creating obstacles to bad habits often gives you the space to regain control.

If you have get something out of storage every time you want to use it, you’ll either stop putting it back or stop using it. When I started reading at meals, going back to watching Netflix would have required bringing my laptop downstairs or carrying my food upstairs. Eating at the dining table where a book sat waiting for me was the lazy option. Make the lazy option the good option, and you win.

Please note: Substance addictions are a different beast from bad habits. If you or a loved one are suffering from substance addiction, you can find support 24/7 by calling the SAMHSA hotline at 1–800–662–4357.

Foster a bias toward action

In design thinking, we like to talk about having a bias toward action. We say things like “fail forward” — take action today and embrace the lessons failures give you.

A martial artist doesn’t become a great fighter without sparring, right? And when you were a baby, learning to speak your native language involved a lot of babbling in the beginning. You don’t master anything without actually doing the thing. As Jake the Dog said in Adventure Time, “sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something”.

To wrap up: Self-improvement is like compound interest. Maintain new habits with repeated small efforts and watch them grow like good investments. Bundling new habits into existing ones is an easy way to get started. And adding obstacles to bad habits can help you kick them for good.

So go forth.

Be willing to be really bad at something, and you create the possibility that one day you’ll be kind of good at it. I believe in you.

Kyle Vaughan is co-founder and CEO of Greatest Possible Good, a design thinking consultancy for impact-driven ventures.

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