The New Year's resolutions that really work

A three-step process to help you make changes that stick

By Joe Duran

Jan 13, 2015 @ 11:01 am EST

Every year starts with millions of resolutions that are often broken before Valentine's Day. However, there is one resolution that can significantly change your life and it's remarkably easy to put to work: I promise to make no new resolutions until I figure out how to make them stick.

I suspect many of the declarations written a few weeks ago have already been collecting cobwebs. Why is it that so many resolutions fail? I sincerely believe that it's because we seldom have a disciplined approach to making change stick, and more importantly, we seldom make the incremental adjustments needed to change our behaviors for good.

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There are really two kinds of resolutions. Those that involve stopping an activity you don't like: smoking, eating too much or not interrupting people, for example. And those that involve doing something new to improve yourself. For instance, working out more, taking more family time, being more helpful around the house.

These really are two sides of the same coin, and we often don't look at both sides. Life is a series of tradeoffs. Truth is, most of us already give all of our time and energy throughout our day to try to be as good as we can be. If you want something to really change, it requires understanding that doing anything new means stopping something as well.

Surely every person who makes a New Year's Resolution knows what they should be doing and yet they hadn't been doing it. The challenge is that to commit the time and energy to something new, people need to start by giving up something else they have been doing.

This is a simple three-step exercise I highly recommend for anyone who'd like to really get their resolutions to stick:

1. Start by getting rid of something

If you want to start doing a new activity, the time has to come from somewhere. Identify what you will be doing less of. Let's use a simple example of working out more. In order to make it happen, you need to figure out what you will stop doing to find the time to exercise more. Will you sleep less? Will you leave work during the day? What will you stop doing? I use this process when planning my year ahead. Let me give you a real example. In 2013, our team agreed that I should be writing more to raise the visibility of the firm. First we had to find the time in my schedule because -- like everyone reading this blog -- we are all maxed out. We decided that I could be less involved in our acquisition process and expanded the team to create capacity. My first thought was that we would somehow regress if I wasn't as involved -- that turned out to be wrong. Really bright people completely committed to one task were far better than me half committing to it. I now had time to allocate somewhere else.

2. Develop a plan with consequences

We humans need instant and real consequence to enforce good behavior. However, since the rewards of many of our resolutions are longer term in nature, we need to make the consequences of not sticking to our plan real and immediate. Let's say you want to exercise more and have created the time in your day to do it. What will the consequence be of not sticking to your plan, other than a guilty conscience? Having a price to pay for not doing something is the best way to ensure you do it. It can be something as silly as no carbs at dinner, or no TV or giving $100 to charity. Pay a real price for not sticking to your promise to yourself. It will reinforce the good behavior.

3. Make it a habit

Every habit you have today was created by you over time. I've read that 21 days is the amount of time it takes to change behavior. That isn't very long. That also means that every habit you have in the future will simply be the long-term impact of whatever you choose to do every day right now. Just be doggedly persistent that you will make it past the point where you have to think about it and it becomes a part of your routine. I've started every morning for the past five years by looking at when I'm exercising. I hate exercise, but simply can't imagine my day without it. Same goes for drinking lots of water. Once something becomes habitual it is hard to break, both good and bad.

So what's my resolution for this year? The most important one is to be more patient with myself and the people around me. Now how much longer do I have to wait for that to work? I haven't made this resolution a habit yet -- oops there goes my beer at dinner!

Joe Duran is chief executive of United Capital, a financial advisory firm. Follow him @DuranMoney.

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