It is natural to use landmarks to evaluate your life. Times like birthdays, New Year’s Day, and transitions like new jobs, divorces, or graduations are all times that lead people to think about what they have accomplished and what they have yet to do.
But there is a cultural expectation that at the beginning of each new year, you’ll find something about yourself you want to change and dig in to make that change.
Often, you ought to ignore the urge to commit to a big behavior change.
The canary in the coal mine for big behavior change is systematic failure. When there is a goal that is really critical to you that you are systematically failing to achieve, that is the signal that you need to do something different if you want to succeed.
The significant systematic failures in your life are probably rare. You are holding down a job, enjoying your friends and your family, and maybe even some romance.
Tiny changes versus “disruption”?
Think about your life like a product for a moment. Most of the time, the product a company produces is pretty good and doesn’t need a wholesale revision. Instead, products are spruced up and companies create “new and improved” versions, which are fundamentally the same product with a few tweaks. Only rarely do companies really try to disrupt an industry. Disruptions seem sexy, because they can change a market, but most deeply innovative products don’t succeed (think Segway . . . ).
Likewise, most of the changes in behavior that you make should be of the “new and improved” variety. Small changes that enable you to do what you already do more effectively are likely to succeed. Typically, the best way to enter the new year (or to use the energy from any landmark in your life) is to find something straightforward to change and to focus your efforts on that.
An advantage to these tiny changes is that you will still make an improvement to your life, but you’re likely to succeed. You give yourself an emotional boost for improving your life without the frustration that comes along with a wholesale disruption.
A string of small successes can also give you more confidence when it really is time to do something more disruptive. In particular, when you try to make a big change, you are virtually guaranteed to experience some setbacks. You don’t want those setbacks to give you evidence that you’re a failure. If you have a run of success in smaller behavior changes, then you know you’re not a failure, you just haven’t yet succeeded at the bigger change. And that knowledge can make you more resilient on those days when your attempt at a big behavior change has fallen flat.
Here’s to a “new and improved” year.