I haven’t made a proper New Year’s resolution in I don’t know how many years. I’ve always been good about following through with goals. But for some reason, just like 80/90/whatever percentage of the population, I would inevitably fail on my resolutions within the first month or so.
This year, I made a non-resolution. And I made a plan to stick with it.
We pretty much set ourselves up for failure when we make New Year’s resolutions, don’t we? Think about it: It’s the night of celebrating after a week or more of overeating and over-sleeping. All of a sudden, with no preparation or plans, we think we can say, “I resolve to lose 20 pounds,” and magically it will happen?
New Year’s resolutions aren’t like birthday wishes we send out to the Universe while blowing out candles. Resolutions are commitments to ourselves that require some sort of plan to achieve them.
“But, ‘I resolve to work out every day’ is a plan,” you might be saying.
No, it’s not a plan; it’s a goal. “I work out every day” is a goal that needs a plan.
The problem with resolutions is that we try to force a new habit on ourselves without giving ourselves a structure to adopt it. For example, what does “I work out every day” really mean? It could mean you go running every day. Or walking or swimming or biking. Or maybe it’s doing yoga or dancing or lifting weights.
How long are you going to run or walk or bike or do yoga? What time of day? What if it’s raining out? What if it’s bat-butt cold outside?
This non-resolution that I set for myself on January 1st this year is “to walk, at least to the park and back, every day. Even when it’s raining or unbearably cold out.”
So, that’s my goal. What’s my structure? How am I going to make sure I actually do it?
I learned this amazingly effective trick in a coaching class I took a few years ago with Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of Succeed. Heidi’s research on willpower shows that willpower is like a muscle. We have to exercise it to make it stronger, but overdoing it will exhaust it.
Her research also showed that we can make it easier to exercise our willpower muscle by giving it prompts to trigger it automatically. It’s like finding the reflex part of the willpower muscle. When the doctor taps your knee in just the right spot, your leg reflexively kicks out. We’re looking for just the right spot to tap on your resolution willpower muscle that will make it reflexively kick into gear.
The trick is to create a “when-then” statement. The “when” part is “just the right spot for tapping.” The “then” part is what happens when your willpower muscle kicks into gear.
An important thing to remember is that you must create the willpower reflex ahead of time, before you need it, and then practice it. It’s not naturally an automatic reflex like your knee-leg reflex. You’ve got to train it, not unlike Pavlov training his dogs with a bell.
Imagine this scene from just last week: I get my son up for school and see that it’s zero degrees Fahrenheit outside. (I start wearing a heavy winter coat when it hits 49. So my natural reflex to zero degrees is to stay in bed!) He goes to school that day by carpool, not by bus. That means that I don’t have to leave the house that day. I can stay inside and stay warm(ish) all day . . . and give up on my goal of walking every day.
Would I have a valid excuse not to walk? Shoot, yes. It’s zero degrees outside. The last thing I want to do is open the door, much less actually walk to the park.
But here’s where my when-then reflex training comes in. On January 1st, when making my non-resolution of walking at least to the park every day, I created a when-then statement: “When my son goes to school in the morning, I will walk to the park and back.”
I wrote down my when-then statement, and, here’s the important part, I practiced it. I sat down and said it out loud to myself several times. Then I said it out loud again later. And again later.
I said it when I went to sleep the night before my son went back to school. I said it when I woke him up for the first day back at school. I said it the morning I saw it was zero degrees Fahrenheit outside. And I said it when he hopped into the carpool car and I was tempted to curl up on the couch.
“When my son goes to school, I will walk to the park and back.”
And I did! I looked ridiculous in my face mask, but the when-then reflex worked. I walked to the park and back. It’s not much, but it’s more than I normally do in the winter.
If you’re wondering what I do for the weekends when my son doesn’t go to school, I have another when-then statement for that situation: “When I’m done eating breakfast, I will walk to the park.”
Creating – and practicing! – a when-then statement is a powerful technique for any action-resistant tasks you have. It’s great for changing your diet, quitting smoking or drinking, starting any new habit, or eliminating an undesirable behavior.
“When I feel like eating a cookie, I will have an apple instead.”
“When I feel like having a beer, I will drink a kombucha instead.”
“When I feel like yelling, I will take a breath and whisper.”
Here are a few tips for creating your when-then statement:
- Make it short
- Make it specific
- Make it easy
- PRACTICE IT
Your when-then statement needs to be something you can easily remember. Make it short and sweet. Rambling isn’t powerful, no matter how poetic it may be.
Be very specific with your when-then statement. I was specific about “when my son goes to school” and “when I’m done eating breakfast.” Those are my triggers. Remember, the doctor isn’t tapping all over your leg. She goes straight to the reflex spot on your knee.
Make sure the “then” part of your statement is something you can actually do. Notice I didn’t say “I will walk 5 miles in a blizzard.” Walking to the park and back takes me 10 minutes. That’s totally doable.
Remember that the key to making this work is to practice your when-then statement so that it becomes a willpower reflex. Practice it enough and when you want a cookie, you WILL quickly stop wanting the cookie because a Pavlovian-like response kicks in making you want an apple instead.
I love using the when-then technique to help me achieve my willpower-resistant goals. And I’m actually excited about following through with my non-resolution to walk every day.
How can you create when-then statements to help with your goals?
About the Author, Kelly Eckert
Kelly Eckert is an author, professional speaker, and shamanic leadership coach. She is a graduate of Harvard College with a bachelor's degree in biological anthropology and Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences with a master's degree in biology.
Kelly is a certified MentorCoach® and a certified coach member of the International Coach Federation. She is the creator of the Fear Releasing Method™ and Coaching with Animal Archetypes™. Kelly speaks nationally and internationally on the topics of fear and unleashing the animal within. Her latest book, What's Your Spirit Animal?, is now available. Find out more at kellyeckert.com.