Updated: Jan 3, 2021
This time last year I read the research on the futility of New Year’s resolutions. What a relief that was. The discovery that 64% of resolutions are abandoned by February eased the pressure immensely. After all, I can’t be blamed for not sticking to the diet, quitting my morning run and continuing to overspend when the problem is with the strategy of ‘resolutions’, not with me.
On the flip side, however, research also tells us that 46% of resolution makers keep to it for at least six months, and anyone who does make a New Year Resolution is still 10 times more likely to make personal changes as those who choose any other form of self-improvement. All these statistics are fun to play with, we can use them to justify whatever choice we make, but they tell us little about how to achieve what we wanted in the first place: personal change.
Don’t panic, there are just as many ‘habit how to’s’ out there as there are screeds of research and statistics. Habit stacking, atomic habits, habit tracking, cues, rewards, triggers: these are now all common conversation points. Nearly everyone has a hint or tip on how to break, change or create habits. Nearly everyone is speaking from the experience of failure.
So what does make the difference? Turns out Disney told me long ago: the answer is inside me. It comes down to what I tell myself.
The stories we tell ourselves, the inner beliefs about who we are, why we do the things we do and how the world works, are the biggest influence on our behaviours. Our self-stories intercede between our conscious thoughts and our unconscious actions. They sift through the past, through beliefs born of experiences, indoctrination and social influence, and realign our conscious goals with our true values. Our behaviours obey our internalised self-image, not the self-image we are yet to create. Humans strive for consistency so our unconscious, automatic decisions match our idea of who we are. The best way to achieve long-term behaviour change is by changing our self-stories and examining our true values.
People often confuse their values with their “shoulds.” A “should” is something that usually comes from societal pressure, something we have told ourselves we need to do or be in order to become a better, healthier or more liked person. “I should spend more time exercising” or “I shouldn’t drink more than one glass of wine” are common goals, not because such behaviours are intrinsically valuable to the individual, but because we think they are good and desirable attributes. Our true values are already shown in our current behaviours. If you truly valued exercising or abstinence, you’d be doing it already. Values are neither good nor bad - they just are. Fortunately, they are malleable too.
The trick is to catch yourself in the act, pause and reflect. Ask yourself ‘is there a story that goes along with this?’ Think about what were the predominant stories when you grew up - the stories demonstrated by the behaviours of your family, your social circle and in the generational influences and experiences you lived through. What stories were missing? What were the true values behind the behaviours of those around you, that shaped the stories you inherited? It's important to see these values, not as immovable causes of your behaviour, but simply to be aware of how they have shaped you and how they might be changed.
Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect, promotes the strategy of ‘story editing’ and offers a range of ways of doing this. In one, called “story prompting,” people are given information that suggests a new way of interpreting their situation. Another, ‘rewriting’ involves a series of writing exercises he has developed to help people reinterpret difficult events from their past. All his techniques are designed to change our personal narratives so that it will align with the changes in behaviour we are trying to achieve.
When you attempt to change a behaviour without considering what your personal story is and the true value it is related to, you will simply reinforce unhelpful stories, or create new unexpected narratives. Wilson gives the example of using incentives or punishments to change behaviour, which can backfire by changing people’s stories in unintended ways. Child carers that fine parents for being late when picking up their children found that doing so actually increased the number of times parents were late. Parents simply changed their story from, “It would be rude to be late too often” to “This is a fair exchange - I can stay at work for another 30 minutes and pay the daycare centre for that privilege.” They unintentionally moved the story from one that valued social niceties to one that aligned with the ‘time equals money’ value.
Wilson’s studies are good news. They suggest there are ways to change that, while not simple or quick, will be lasting and transformative. The idea that we are run by story allows us to see the world as flexible and subjective, not fixed and predetermined. It means we can learn to change or expand our perspectives, but first, we need awareness. We need to listen to the stories carefully, analyse them from a distance and examine them with detachment. This isn’t easy. Many people need a coach, a therapist or a trusted friend to mirror back their words. Alternatively, one can engage in a self-coaching approach of curious exploration, and a willingness to disassociate from self-judgement or self protection.
That’s why this New Year I am taking on just one resolution: to listen to myself. There are changes I want to make, and I want to make them stick, so I must change the underlying self-story that is operating. First I need to hear that story. I need to put myself in situations that allow that story to surface. My plan is to allow myself to behave in just the way I do now, but to start paying close attention as to why. What purpose is this action serving me? What value does it portray? How would I feel if I didn’t do this? Why? What is the story behind that? I will be my own detective exploring the inner sanctum. And I shan’t let the statistics hold me back.