For as long as I’ve been an adult, New Year’s has been my favorite holiday, and December my favorite month.
The two are related, of course, and this post is about the best way I’ve come up with to use them together—to create real, lasting change (even when you’ve failed many times in the past).
I’m a total sucker for the inspiration a New Year brings. But it’s not that I believe in some magical wiping clean of the slate and a chance to “start fresh” with a new resolution. We all know that’s a joke, and usually no more than a reason to delay making a change you’re scared to make.
But the silly New Year’s resolution tradition has ingrained one useful habit in me, which is to take a step back at the end of the year to assess how it went, and to take note of where I am relative to where I’d like to be.
And then, if there’s a gap, to set about on a course to close it.
So let’s not talk about New Year’s resolutions, but rather of new habits, habits designed to move you in the direction of goals that matter to you.
And from there—with the help of the legitimate, now well-charted science of habit change—we can actually say something logical about how best to use December as a springboard into your best year ever.
3 Simple Forces that Make All the Difference
Really, just three:
- Small steps. For almost everyone, they work better than dramatic, overnight change. The idea of change being easy once some imaginary internal switch flips is (mostly) a Hollywood myth, not how people really make changes that last.
- Impatience. The problem with small steps is they take time; they don’t bring visible results right away. Nobody wants to wait six months or a year for their change curve to hit the exciting, exponential part where the results all start to show up, seemingly once. So instead, most of us try to change too fast, and we fail.
- The start (or quit) date. Smokers know that cessation programs often suggest setting a “quit date”: a specific day in the future when you’ll make your move. It’s tempting to write this off as another procrastination, but it’s more than that. Setting a date (for any change, not just smoking) creates a sense of importance, even anticipation. So that once that day comes, you’re not as likely to cave to urges and cravings as you would be if you tried to change your habit today.
And with all the machinery in place, here’s the best way to make a change this time of year (hint: it involves December 1st, which comes later this week).
Step 1: Decide on your big, exciting (maybe even massive!) habit change, set to begin January 1st.
Maybe that’s the day your marathon training starts. Perhaps that’s your cheese quit date. Or maybe it’s when you start hitting the gym three times a week, and running on the off-days.
This is one time when it’s okay to go big here; we’ll worry about small steps in a minute.
Mark it on your calendar. Congratulations, you’ve got a start (or quit) date! It’s important not to let yourself begin (or quit) until then, to build the anticipation and sense of importance.
For bonus points, do all the other things that help you follow through: creating accountability by involving other people is the most important, probably.
Step 2: Make December your small steps month.
Just because we set our sights on a massive change, doesn’t mean we’re ignoring small steps. In fact, that’s why we desperately need them! And that’s why we’ve got December.
So December is for small steps. If you had a month to prepare for your January 1st change (hint: you do!), what would you do?
It shouldn’t be massive. It shouldn’t all at once. Instead, make it a gradual ramp-up, one that preserves your willpower by making it easy to succeed.
If your marathon schedule starts on January 1st, then December might be a great month to run every day. Maybe just a mile per day the first week, or another amount you can handle pretty easily (or 2.018 miles if you’re Doug). Then add a little more the next week, and a little more the next… whatever it takes to be in shape to start training for real in January.
Same story if it’s the gym. If you wait until January 1st and then go at it like a crazy person, the soreness and schedule disruption will be your downfall. But how about if you get that soreness over with in the first week of December, with just one or two light workouts? Then add some more volume and weight over the next few weeks, still not quite reaching the amount you’re saving for January 1.
Or if you’re looking to go vegan on January 1, come up with a plan to gradually transition from wherever you are. Could be a “vegan before 6” sort of thing, or maybe it’s vegan at home, or maybe just on weekdays. The in-between time will help you learn to plan meals, shop, order at restaurants, and navigate parties and social situations. And then, come January 1 when you go all the way, you’ll be in a position to make the real thing last.
Step 3: Start on December 1.
See what we did there? A mini start date, even for your small steps month! Because you’re a whole lot more likely to follow through with it, I believe, than if you were to decide to start right now—it wouldn’t mean anything.
But mark your calendar today, with the smallest possible first step, and you’ll have created something real, with your best shot ever at making this change last.