Already failed your year’s resolutions? Here are other alternatives…

There’s a whole industry out there trying to convince you that the new year is the year of a new you. As they try to shove yearly planners down your throat and sign you up for a whole year of gym membership at a 50 % discount, it’s very easy to be carried by the wave. If you really think about it, they should verify the famous slogan to, “New Year New You with a More Famished Wallet.” Despite all that hype, only 8 % of people keep their New Year’s Resolutions – statistics which make one wonder why the 92 % even bother.

Making NY resolutions tends to be more of a procrastination strategy than a personal development one. The idea that you’re supposed to wait for a certain time or date to begin something makes it easy to procrastinate on important life decisions. Decisions you know would make you slightly uncomfortable.

“I want to eat healthy, but maybe next year I’ll add it to my New Year’s Resolution list.”

“I want to read more, but maybe next year…”

So the obvious solution to that is to implement a good idea the day you hear it, regardless of whether it’s New Year’s Day or Mid-April or the end of November.

A resolution is like a promise you make to yourself. The main reason promises find themselves broken like new toys in the hands of a toddler, is because the mindset breaking it is different from the mindset making it.

On January 1, it’s very easy to be pumped up and excited about our resolutions because many people are talking about it. You write your resolutions about losing weight, eating healthy, spending less on a large sheet of paper. Come Day 30 and that paper acts as a coaster for your ice cream tub. So an alternative to making this promise to yourself and then disappointing yourself continuously is to take stock of your life right now, and work on fixing it one small habit at a time. It’s known that drastic changes are hard to make because of our habits. We can say that we want to lose weight but as long as the cue-routine-reward cycle exists in our brain (as explained in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit), it’s going to be tough.

So this is an alternative to making New Year’s Resolutions:

  • Know thyself. Identify your habit cycles and start breaking them down. The Power of Habit is a highly recommended read for this particular step.
  • Think in terms of forming habits instead of making individual goals. For instance, let’s say we want to lose 5 lbs this year; that’s a goal. We’ll always be in a state of disappointment until we reach that goal – that’s if we reach it. And as millennials we’re not so into long-term gratification. We want results like…yesterday! So instead of setting a goal that way, we can focus on making it a habit to take a thirty minute walk everyday or hit the gym three times a week. Taking that first step will help provide us with instant gratification, build our success spiral and all in all, make us feel good.
  • Link habits together to build integrated systems. This needs some thinking and tinkering but basically the secret is to link new habits with long-established habits. So if you’re used to taking a nap in the afternoon, and you want to start doing sit-ups for instance, link the afternoon nap with the sit-up to maintain consistency. The moment you pile habits together and build a system, it becomes this behemoth giant that’s hard to slow down once started.
  • Work from your personal values. I’ve written about this previously. A lot of times we just want to incorporate things into our lives because other people think it’s a good idea. But if it’s not a good idea for us on some deep personal level, then we’d lose traction faster than tires on black ice.
  • Reduce the inertia. We’re not big fans of change so the hardest part of starting anything is overcoming that initial inertia. Sometimes one needs to think of ways to reduce the inertia, for instance in the gym case, some people keep their gym clothes ready the night before so they can launch into their workout routine as soon as they wake up.
  • Experiment. Everybody’s system is going to be different and there’s no way of knowing what works for you until you experiment. Some people get stuck in the idea collection stage without executing anything but until we try we never know what’d work. The secret is to work on your own personal project and have fun doing so.
  • Last but not least, just start! Today. Not tomorrow. Not January 1. Not May 25. Just start today.

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Start With a List

So a blogger friend of mine sent me a message the other day saying, “I’ve lost my writing mojo.”

I replied back with, “You’re not the only one,” considering I haven’t been as consistent on my blog as I usually am.

But then she said she had to write an important report and couldn’t even get that done. So my suggestion was to start with a list. Just bullet points. Incomplete sentences. Grammarless English. Or Sheng.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of lists. Whether you’re trying to break out of writer’s block or a prolonged procrastination period, lists usually do the trick because they’re so simple.  My personal favorite list is one I saw spreading on social media. It fools you into thinking you’re so productive.



Joking aside, there’s no rule of where to write your list or how it should look like. You may write it on a post-it note and stick it on your laptop screen to increase its visibility (though that doesn’t always work because your mind gets trained to ignore it).

However, the single best advice I’ve heard about daily to-do lists is “Limit your to-do list to three tasks.” No less, no more. Having more than three items on your list can be a bit overwhelming especially when the tasks take hours. Also, finishing the day without crossing out everything on the list makes your mind think it’s okay to put off today’s work until tomorrow and that enables the procrastinator in you.

So what type of lists are you used to writing? Leave your comments below and feel free to share.


Originally appeared in

5 ways you’re procrastinating without knowing it

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Procrastination is one of those insidious problems many of us struggle with yet we don’t always recognize it as procrastination because it takes many forms. So this post might not be useful enough to tell you how to fix procrastination, but at least it’ll help you with recognizing it.

1) You complain. A lot. About all the work you have to do.Maybe you make a quick trip to the library (since you have a lot of work to do) and end up running into a couple of people on the way, but you feel this urge to stop and complain to each one of them, rant out about the extent of your misery because of all the things you have to do…It’s pretty obvious that if you had spent less time complaining and more time actually working, you would get a lot of things done. But no. Complaining is the path of least resistance, which is what procrastination is all about…

2) Organizing. This one’s incredible because it fools you into thinking you’re actually making important progress when you’re not. You sit down to work and then you look at your cluttered table and think that you’d be more efficient if you cleaned up a bit. Which might be true to some extent. But then while you’re cleaning you recognize that it would be better if all your papers were organized. But since you don’t have folders, paper trays and magazine file boxes maybe you can just run to the store to get them. And you end up strolling in the stationary store instead of actually working….

3) Googling/Youtubing things for ‘research’ (and other forms of distraction). We all know the internet is the black hole of the new era; its gravity can get so strong that it prevents us from escaping. One website links to another and another and another….and four hours later you snap out of it and wonder where all the time has gone. And maybe it all started innocently with a short video explaining the basics of the Lattice Boltzmann method and somehow you end up watching a video explaining, “How to make visheti”.

4) Talking about visheti’s, hunger is a very efficient procrastination technique. It especially works for people who are stress eaters. The stress triggers the hunger so they can think of nothing else but food.

5) Non-urgent items on your to-do list. Some of these are pesky items that have been on your to-do list for the past six months. But because you have something really important that you have to do right now and maybe because it’s a little bit unpleasant, it seems easier to just take care of the other pesky items around it so that you feel a sense of accomplishment with your to-do list shorter.

So which procrastination technique are you most guilty of? Leave your comments below.

Originally appeared on

Avoid Falling Back into Old Habits

If picking up and maintaining new good habits were easy, those habits would already be in our lives. Sometimes it’s really hard to reprogram our auto-pilot systems and replace them with new habits. Willpower alone doesn’t always work, so if you’re scared you’d return to old habits, below are a few tips to consider.

1) Use ‘Loss aversion’ to your advantage. Loss aversion theory suggests that the pain of losing a dollar is more than the pleasure of acquiring one. So let’s say, you make a promise that every time you return to your bad habit, you’re going to give out a dollar. For some people, that might be enough to make them stop.

While the idea is appealing, if the dollar is given away for a good cause, it is easy to mentally ‘win’ in both situations. If you don’t return to your habit, you don’t lose the dollar. If you do return to your old habit, you give the dollar away to charity (which is not so bad). That would render this method useless in controlling your habits. Some popular authors, like Chris Bailey author of “New Year’s Resolutions Guideline” suggest that you give the money to a cause you don’t like so it would feel like a punishment and make you stop.

2) Make plans around inflection points; points where the temptation to quit is strongest. This was mentioned before in this blog but I shall reiterate. In his book, ‘The Power of Habits’ Charles Duhigg writes about a study to find out the type of people who were mostly likely to fail in rehabilitation after undergoing hip or knee surgery. The participants were given a booklet with details of the rehab schedule, and blank spaces after “My goals for this week are….” They found out that patients who recovered more quickly were those who filled their booklets with plans, and their plans focused on how they would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain. The idea was also covered in Psyblog, ”Make a very specific ‘if-then’ plan.” Anticipate weak points in the plan where you could fail and make detailed plans around that.

Inflection points could appear when your daily schedule is disrupted like when you travel for holidays. It’s very easy to quit new habits and relapse to old habits since it’s “Just for one month.” So it is imperative that people plan ahead.

3) Peer pressure is a very powerful force that always gets blamed for bad habits. So why don’t we use it to reinforce good habits? Let’s say your resolution is to read one book per month. You could join a monthly book club, and that commitment could push you to read. Alternatively, just have a virtual reading partner you could discuss a particular book with every months.

The most important thing to remember is that breaking out of old habits is difficult. Habits form neural pathways in your brain and restructuring them is no easy feat. So if you ever fall back into your old habits, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, learn to forgive yourself.

So here’s a challenge for you; which tip can you immediately put to action today to avoid falling back into old habits?  Leave your comments below and feel free to share with your friends.

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Upgrade Your Auto-Pilot System

In a previous post, I wrote about how it is necessary to integrate your resolutions within your life’s auto-pilot system. In this context, this system includes all the habits you’ve acquired over the years. The interesting thing is that as we grow older and shoulder more responsibilities, we forget to take a moment to upgrade this auto-pilot system. Let’s take an iphone example from my own phone. All the notifications in the photo below are because I haven’t updated the apps AND the iOS software (the solitary notification on the settings).

88 things to update!

88 things to update!

Likewise, we tend to walk into new roles with the old habits, and that’s part of the reason why you might find fresh graduates entering the workplace with ‘a student mentality’ (never a compliment, trust me!), or husbands entering a marriage with a ‘bachelor’s mentality’. So in order  to upgrade, take note of the following:

1) Write down your current roles and responsibilities, and list down all the habits that are connected to each role. You don’t have to do this on your own. Sometimes you can’t actually, because we tend to be blind to our habits. So it may help to work with a close family member or a friend as they can point out habits ‘we do without consciously thinking about’.

2) Dissect. When it comes to our habits, it helps to understand why some habits exist in the first place. As previously mentioned, many bad habits that are in our lives exist because we get some sort of payoff out of them. Once we assess the payoff and it becomes clear that the payoff is not worth the drawback that comes with the habit, then it would be easier to get rid of it. And sometimes we may realize that we don’t really need to get rid of it, because the payoff is actually important for us, so we can stop being guilty about it.

3) Habit replacement. In Charles Duhigg’s book, ‘The Power of Habit’, he writes about the habit loop shown in the figure below. The habit loop is given in generic terms, and consists of the habit trigger (cue), the habit itself and the reward. So one of the  methods to change a habit is to experiment with rewards, understand what drives the habit (what the true payoff is), and replace the habit with something that would result in a similar reward.

4) Repeat the behavior consistently until it becomes a habit. Some people claim it takes 20 to 30 days to make a new habit, but there’s no clear cut rule for that. One thing that could drive you to keep a daily new habit even when you don’t feel motivated is the “Calender method”. A blogger on wrote about how Seinfield used it to write jokes everyday. The blogger, Brad Isaac, wrote, “[Seinfield] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. ‘After a few days you’ll have a chain. You’ll like seeing that chain. Your only job next is to not break the chain.'”

Having an optimized auto-pilot system helps because it contains habits that move us forward regardless of how motivated (or not) we feel on that day. The thing to remember is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and take a step everyday so in a month we can look back and see that we’re 30 steps ahead (or 28…depends on the month :-P).

So here’s a challenge for you; pick a bad habit, dissect it and write down your plans to replace it in the comments below.

Feel free to share with your friends.

This post appeared first in my main blog

It’s not too late to make and keep a resolution

A lot of people make New Year’s Resolutions. It’s as if they needed January 1 to be reminded that maybe they need to eat healthier and exercise more. But if you really think about it, New Year’s Resolutions are a major procrastination technique where you’re supposed to wait for the time or date to be right to begin something. It’s like when you break your resolution by Day 30, it’s easy to tell yourself, “Maybe next year.”

A resolution is like a promise you make to yourself, and the reason many promises find themselves broken is because they are made with a mindset that is different from the mindset with which the’re broken. So come January 1, you’re pumped up and excited about your resolutions because the market is selling you the slogan ‘A new year, a new you,’ and that’s the mindset with which you write your resolutions. Come Day 30 and you just left work feeling weary and subdued, and you know you’ve promised yourself to stay away from Baskin Robbins but it was on your way home, and it might as well have jumped right in front of you because there you are standing at the counter selecting flavors, mentally doing this, ‘I resolve to stop eating sugary snacks‘.

So what’s the solution to this vicious cycle of making resolutions and then breaking them? Many people delineate solutions and sell them as a self-help book or something, but the most intuitive response involves:

1) Don’t make resolutions that are not important to you. Sometimes you might find yourself making a resolution just because everybody is putting it on their list and it really adds no value to your life. It’s the simple rule of ‘Don’t make a promise you can’t (or don’t want to) keep’.

2) Write down your resolutions. The idea is to take the idea out of your mind and keep it somewhere you can review it occasionally. Some people hang it on their boards, others save it on their phone notes. Remember, out of sight, out of mind.

3) Baby steps. When you write down a list of 25 resolutions that will turn your life upside down, it’s very easy to be overwhelmed and give up a a few days later. The easiest way to go around it is to make a few promises to yourself, let’s say four, and work on a concrete plan on how you’re planning to stick to these four resolutions then update your list on a monthly basis.

4) Integrate your resolutions within your life’s auto-pilot system. A system in this context is a collection of habits that you acquire over the years. If you think you don’t have an auto-pilot system, think again. Everyday we do things more out of habit than out of conscious effort. Developing your system requires more than knowing your habits exist. You would need to understand where your habits come from, what the payoffs are (because all habits, whether good or bad have payoffs), and finally, how to change them. But changing a habit is easier said than done. Some habits are so difficult to change, you might want to consider not changing them because the effort is not worth the result. When done properly, having an effective auto-pilot system would help you keep your resolutions even on the days you ‘don’t feel like it’ and are more likely to break your resolutions.

Let’s take an example; come January 2014, you resolve to spend more time with your family. If your auto-pilot system has you work everyday until 8 pm then you go home and sit in front of the TV until midnight, how will you keep that promise? Your system does not support it. But if you force yourself to leave work at 5 pm, and you get rid of your TV, then maybe this particular resolution has a chance of surviving. Think of it in another way, even if you don’t feel like spending more time with your family, just the fact that you habitually make it home by five and have no TV to distract you might force you to do it.

So here’s a challenge for you, write down in the comments section what 2014 resolutions you’ve kept so far?

This post originally appeared on A Heart’s Echoes: