Why Your New Resolutions Are Already Failing (And What To Do Instead)

photography by dan james
photography by dan james

Becomes really tiresome doesn’t it?

That pattern of entering a new year with so much promise, so many plans for change, so much expectation… Then a week in realising that we’re pretty much exactly the same people doing exactly the same things we were doing a month ago.

And feeling as despondent and deflated as a limp birthday balloon flapping about on a gate post a fortnight after the party’s over.

The idea behind setting new year resolutions is well intended.

We want to better ourselves, to become closer to the best person we can be. To be more creative, more calm, more focused, more healthy, more energised, more content.

The problem comes in the expectation.

We underestimate how difficult it is to change – in mere days – behaviours we’ve had engrained in our psyche for years.

To compound the struggle further, we’re rarely content with taking on just one new year resolution. Oh no. This year is going to be the one, where finally we triple our creativity, double our income and halve our bodyweight! All by February, at the very latest!

Resolutions don’t work because they’re too ambitious, too complex, and too many.

So what can we do instead?

Not even try to improve ourselves? Give up before we even start and save the disappointment?

As with many things in life, what works is stripping down and simplifying, and taking one small step at a time.

Ever tried swallowing a pig whole? No, I expect not. Bacon sandwiches are pretty scrummy though aren’t they?

Ever tried getting your jaws around a pineapple? Didn’t think so. Cut into chunks and eaten a couple at a time on a spoon though, they’re delicious.

So let’s consider a writing example that works.

Say you wanted to write 1000 words a day, but in the past have only ever done that on a handful of days. This makes it very ambitious to expect to suddenly be able to pull it off now.

This isn’t to say you can’t reach a point where you are writing 1000 words a day, that’s very attainable for most of us. But probably not in a couple of days.

We need to simplify, and start small.

First, focus on writing, and nothing else. Your plans for photography, and balsa modelling and macrame can wait, for now.

Then, you might like to set a time of day to write. Say 6am, or 9pm, or just after lunch.

At this time, use a timer to record just five minutes, and sit down and write for that time.

It doesn’t matter whether you write ideas for a book, a few lines of poetry, a stream of random thoughts, or a shopping list. What matters most is that you write. For five minutes.

Tomorrow, do the same.

After a week, change the timer to ten minutes.

By now you’ll very likely be hitting the 5 minute mark and wishing you could carry on. You can.

Another couple of weeks in, go to 15 minutes.

Then, after a month you will have been writing daily and consistently, most recently for 15 minutes.

Depending on what and how you write, a few hundred words is doable in 15 minutes, maybe 500 or even 1000 if you think and write fast. But don’t get hung up on the numbers, focus on the daily pattern, and how strong it’s becoming.

So if for the next month you wrote for 15 minutes a day (or you might want to now stretch it to 20 or 30 of course), that’s a fair bit of writing.

And it’s far more writing than you would have done if, on 1 January, you’d have set the aim of writing 1000 words a day every day, then given up on day two when you only managed 987.

Simple daily habits work because that’s how we get stuff done in the rest of our lives.

By doing things at certain times repeatedly, to the point where we don’t even think about doing them, they just happen, they get done.

Breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, washing, getting dressed, brushing our teeth. For any of us, we already have a list of stuff we do each day on autopilot, that helps us survive.

(Imagine if we had to think about and meticulously schedule all these things from scratch every single day? We’d all be crazy!)

Why not tap into this incredibly powerful and natural system of habits to do more of the other things we want to?

As we’ve spoken about before, another flexible and useful aspect of habits is that we can stack them up.

For example, when you go to bed, you might wash, get dressed in your bedclothes, brush your teeth, visit the loo, go to bed, read for 15 minutes, then turn off the light and sleep. You do it as one fluid sequence of activities – you don’t stop between and think about what you need to do next, the routine is established.

We can do the same with creative habits.

So, maybe in the morning you might want to make a drink, go to your desk, write for 20 minutes, then paint for 30 more.

Or read for 20 minutes, then write for 20, then read for 20 more. A read/write sandwich.

Or paint for 30 minutes, then grab your camera and go for a 30 minute walk, photographing anything that might catch your eye along the way.

Or reintroduce the balsa modelling or macrame.

The design and the order is completely up to you. The stacks can be as creative as you wish.

Once that initial habit is established (our example above was 15 minutes writing each day), then it’s far easier to stack another little habit on top of that, than to start from scratch.

Because the structure and familiarity of the habit is already in place and comfortable.

To recap then.

Resolutions don’t work because we have too high an expectation – both in how much we change (“if it’s not massive change, why bother?”, in how many different areas we can change at once (“at least five major life areas, maybe even 10), and how quickly we can bring these changes into being (“preferably by January 7th, but at a push the 15th”)…

Instead, we can choose one simple thing we’d like to introduce into our creative lives, like painting or writing for 10 minutes a day.

Then introduce the new habit slowly, building the amount of time we spend as the weeks go by and as we feel confident doing so.

If you follow this plan, then by March (maybe even February) you’ll have in place fundamental habits and routines that can stand you in good stead not just for the next few months, but for the rest of your creative life.

And something that last December seemed impossible – like writing 1000 words a day, or painting a new painting a week – may well have become not only possible, but inevitable, week after week, month after month.

Join the conversation to tell us about your plans for a simple new creative habit…


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