Crafting a series of New Year’s resolutions, often under the influence of a fit of remorse, the cake crumbs still lingering in the corners of your mouth, the dregs of some half-finished beverage atop a worn sock you used as a coaster, is an American tradition as hallowed as the celebration from which these resolutions inevitably emerge. And equally as hallowed, perhaps, is the jettisoning of those same resolutions roughly six weeks later, when the remorse has sputtered out like Anthony Weiner’s political career and the thought of returning to the gym is only slightly less enticing than a colonoscopy (which, incidentally, you may want to consider adding to your resolutions?). If I have described the typical arc of your resolutions process, take comfort: you are not alone. Shifting our behaviors is tremendously difficulty. But, alas, sometimes behaviors need to be shifted. So, let’s talk about how we can best achieve that.
Part of the problem is that we often jump into behavior change without stopping to question what it is
we really are trying to achieve? We leave behind the Why in favor of the How. The “how” is just so much more tangible, more concrete—less existential and more actionable. But for meaningful change to take place, you have to understand the meaning part of the equation. Why are you making the changes you’re making? Why do these behaviors need to change? When we decide to cut out drinking because we had a few too many on New Year’s Eve, our “why” is about as flimsy as Miley Cyrus’s New Year’s Eve concert outfit. That is not a sustainable impetus for change in and of itself. The “why” needs to have some substance if it’s going to form the support structure for the “how”.
For example, if the goal is to drop a few pounds and get into shape, do we have a “why” strong enough to drive our efforts and sustain us when the refrigerator calls? If that motivation is simply to look good in my European speedo during my next trek to the beach, I will fail in that diet faster than a Democrat in Texas. But if that “why” is about addressing the chronic pain and discomfort that being overweight and out-of-shape has introduced; or is motivated by a family history of chronic metabolic disease that is acerbated by being overweight; or, more realistically, motivated by my almost pathological narcissism, then I may have sufficient motivation to put in the hard work and create the right outcome. The “why” drives the “how”.
The start of a new year gives us a built-in rationale to really question what we want to achieve and why we want (or need) to achieve it. This thought work should not be underestimated. Not only does it offer support for the changes we want to make for ourselves, but, when we assume responsibility for the development of our direct reports (which as good leaders is our job!), helping them to address their own why can be a powerful way to deepen that relationship and add value as a leader.
Further, as a leader, you should be working to connect the individual “why” of your direct reports with the larger “why” of the organization, as part of the process of translating organizational strategy into the day-to-day tactics executed by your team members. When employees lack the “why” behind a goal, they just as likely lack the motivation to attack that goal. Human nature being what it is, when I don’t understand why I’m doing something, I either don’t do it or don’t do it as well as I otherwise might. Spending time on the “why” is one of those key pieces that turn managers into actual leaders.
A systemic lack of motivation is another way of saying someone is “disengaged” with their work—simply “going through the motions”. And disengagement, it turns out, is a major cause of poor performance and turnover. Ergo, you have the makings of a fine formula here: lack of the “why” leads to a lack of motivation, which leads to disengagement, which leads to poor performance and/or turnover. It’s not exactly Isaac Newton, I grant you, but I’m missing that level of genius attributable to a good clonk on the head by a granny smith…
The “why” thus serves a number of critical purposes: from creating the fuel that drives our actions; to offering a deeper and more impactful conversation with our direct reports; to ensuring strategic goals are aligned to our tactics; and to countering disengagement by providing meaningful impetus for the work we, and our direct reports, do. Once you get your “why” in shape, you can turn to the “how” with improved confidence.
Beyond the “why” lies the vast field of the “how”. How do we create the right behaviors, and sustain those behaviors, to achieve our goals? If the goal is to drop a few pounds and get in shape, and we are committed to the “why” of the goal, then how do we best operate to achieve that outcome?
Author James Clear has some help for us. In Clear’s 2018 book, Atomic Habits, he explores the impact that small, but meaningful, changes can make in shaping our habits, and, by extension, our success or failure in the accomplishment of our goals. James has spent the better part of his professional career focused on habits, decision making, and continuous improvement, believing that our approach to habits is the key to generating these outcomes. As James notes:
“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat. If you want to predict where you’ll end up in life, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line”.
Clear’s advice goes right at behavioral change via our habits. This makes sense, as our habits are, by definition, habitual behaviors—”a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior”, according to the good people of Websters. Accomplishing anything of real importance inevitably requires a consistency of behavioral effort. What’s another way to say this? How about: accomplishing anything of real importance inevitably requires us to generate and follow good habits. So, as Clear promotes, develop the right habits, and create an environment that supports and sustains those habits, and you get meaningful results:
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent”.
Clear goes on to speak about how establishing the right habits and sustaining those habits also involves breaking complex goals up into small, manageable pieces. You can’t lose 50 lbs in a weekend, no matter how driven your “why” or committed to your habits you might be. Hollywood actresses aside, this goal is not achievable, nor does it help you to set-up an expectation and an environment conducive to establishing and achieving the correct habits. Small, incremental change—the product of smart, sustainable habits—is the key to creating lasting behavioral change and accomplishing the goals you have set out to achieve.
Taken together then, fueling ourselves with a meaningful “why” and then dissecting our goal into small, manageable pieces that we can “habituate”, creates a greater likelihood that we will be successful accomplishing our goals—whether this goal is simply the modification of current bad behaviors; or the harnessing of our behaviors to achieve some more definitive outcome.
While keeping to your New Year’s resolutions may not be your most critical focus this year, creating an effective approach to tackle your goals certainly has a timeless quality to it. When that approach includes a solid understanding of purpose, and it is built around smart habits that can be both sustained and lead to meaningful, incremental improvement toward your goal, you have a recipe for success. See if you can include this process into your goal efforts this year—it just might make the difference between achieving those goals or ending up on the wrong end of a remorse spiral next New Year’s Eve.