Welcome to the New Year! It's the time of resolutions, both failed and realized. After being around people for a while (and being a person myself) I've learned that you're likely to fall into one of two categories:
- You're stoked to start doing the thing you want to be doing for the "new you for the new year"
- You're jaded by previous attempts to re-orient your habits and aren't even going to try
If you're like me, there's probably a little bit of both of these sentiments in you. Perhaps one is more present right now than the other. Outside of coaching, I also run a company called "Post-Jaded." Our mission statement is to help people break out of the mindset of jaded-ness and reconnect with their purpose and enthusiasm that was present before disillusionment took hold, regardless of what they might be jaded about. I'm finding this notion to be especially pertinent in my own mind as I've been thinking about what I want to accomplish this year (and, more importantly how I'm going to get there.)
Personally, I've had years where I stuck with the thing I wanted to do, years where I reverted to old habits within a week or two, and years where I just didn't even try.
When I really stop and think about the differences in what has made me successful at following through in years past. It wasn't because I was strict or depriving. In fact, quite the opposite. The times I've been most successful at habit change have been when I've actually allowed myself the opportunities to stray from the course without feeling like I failed.
At the core of this mentality is the concept of a fixed vs growth mindset.
Fixed Vs Growth Mindset
Maria Popova nicely summarizes the work of Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck:
"One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness."
The New Year invites us to rewire our fixed mindsets into growth mindsets. But, like Popova points out, these perceptions can be deeply ingrained in our psyches. What happens when that shimmering beacon of hope that you-might-actually-eat-healthy-this-year turns back into the dull familiarity of old habits and complacency?
Old Habits Die Hard?
This is often the result of a deeper fixed mindset being superficially masked by a short-lived burst of growth mindset. Unfortunately, without addressing the deeper aspects of how we view ourselves, it's more likely than not that the brief motivation and excitement will give way to our ingrained patterns.
If trying to establish new habits feels like you're swimming upstream against the current, it's probably because you literally are doing exactly that. You're fighting the subconscious patterns that have developed over your life in response to the sum total of your experiences, and when you encounter resistance to something you consciously want to do, you're likely bumping up against aspects of your psyche that have incorporated a fixed mentality into their structure.
For many people, when they encounter this type of resistance, its too painful or frustrating to try and continue swimming so ferociously against the current without getting anywhere, so they just stop. So, how do you counter this? Are there ways to reinforce the growth mindset? Yes, absolutely.
Breaking Out of the Fixed Mindset
One of the red flags of a fixed mindset is the pass/fail binary. You've either succeeded or you didn't. It's all or nothing. You either stick to the diet or you broke the diet. Ironically, setting your life up as a pass/fail system is a recipe for failure.
So, what happens when we decide: "Hey, I can grow, I can change, its the new year!" but then our idea of change and growth is defined by success or failure? It doesn't give us much room for error. It sets us up for disappointment and actually, more often than not, just reaffirms our fixed mindset.
So, here's the crux of it all: Having a fixed mindset about the growth mindset you desire is the hidden habit-change killer. Setting pass/fail parameters for your once a year goal is a pretty immobilizing way to approach habit change and formation. What happens when you slip up? Have you failed? Do you say "ah, well, no one ever sticks to new years resolutions anyway" and go back to ordering the cheeseburger and fries? This creates a whole lot more potential for failure if you set up the game in a way where it's win or lose.
If you don't meet your goal, it just reinforces the beliefs we were trying to change in the first place. Having a fixed mindset about your ability to grow prevents you from developing the mindset you want.
So, how does one develop a growth mindset? I have two main suggestions.
Developing A Growth Mindset for 2018
First, create a goal oriented process that allows you be genuinely curious about your internal dynamics as you move towards the goal. Instead of focusing solely on the outcome (ie. I don't want to eat as much sugar this year") focus on the process that will allow you to reach that outcome.
With this goal as an example, some questions you can ask yourself are:
- What happens in my mind when I really crave sugar? Am I avoiding something?
- What associations do I have with sugar? Are there childhood experiences or memories that create emotional responses to sugary foods? Am I repeating my parent's patterns?
- What foods can I replace sugar with that I enjoy?
- Am I craving sugar just to prove my fixed mindset right?
- What happens when I let myself eat sugar? Do I beat myself up about it or view it as something to learn from for the next time I'm in that situation?
- Can I use my sugar cravings as an indicator for _______?
- What am I already successful at now? Can I use things I've learned in other areas or parallels I can draw to help support this new habit change?
As Maria Popova again says:
"What it all comes down to is that a mindset is an interpretative process that tells us what is going on around us. In the fixed mindset, that process is scored by an internal monologue of constant judging and evaluation, using every piece of information as evidence either for or against such assessments as whether you’re a good person, whether your partner is selfish, or whether you are better than the person next to you. In a growth mindset, on the other hand, the internal monologue is not one of judgment but one of voracious appetite for learning, constantly seeking out the kind of input that you can metabolize into learning and constructive action."
So, instead of setting up your goals as something that you either "do or don't do", set them up as something that allows for an on-going process of growing self-awareness and self-asessment. Set them up in a way that allows for flexibility, inevitable human error, and doesn't use new years as the only marker of time.
That leads me to my second suggestion...
Every Day is New Year's
Turn your New Year's Resolutions into Year Long Resolutions. Its a subtle difference in perspective, but one that I believe is very helpful for actualizing follow-through.
See, New Year's is a nice time to start things, sure. But, in order to achieve the things we want, it's very helpful to have smaller more regular check-ins.
Instead of using the new year as a time to implement your goals. Use it as a time to strategize how you're going to stay on track. Don't rely on will power alone to force yourself into a new habit. Research shows that trying to force yourself into a new habit is not very effective. Create a plan that allows you to both self assess your progress in regular time intervals and gives you the opportunity to deviate from the plan without feeling like all is lost.
Come up with little "Mini New Year's" dates that you can use to get back on track if you've strayed from what you want to be doing. As an example, I'm checking in every two weeks on goals related to my business and this blog, and using them as "restart opportunities" if I missed a checkpoint along the way.
Self-Talk as an Indicator
Once your optimistic growth mindset is interrupted by the reality that you couldn't help yourself at the potluck and ate 5 cookies (been there, done that) where do you go from there? Do you revert back to a fixed mindset or does your growth mindset remain in control?
Monitoring your self-talk is a great way to understand what's going on beneath the levels of your conscious mind. The key here is to become aware of, but not necessarily believe the voice in your head. This gives you the opportunity to examine your beliefs and engage in a healthier internal dialogue. Here's examples of self-talk that might accompany either outcome:
"Ugh well I guess my New Year's diet is over. Back to normal. Phew."
"This is just like the last time I tried to change habits, I might as well not try"
"I knew I wasn't really going to follow through anyway."
"OK I ate the cookies. I wonder how I can keep this from happening next time."
"Well, I did good not eating sugar for two weeks. It's ok though, I deserved a treat."
"Those cookies were delicious but the way I feel now is a great reminder why I wanted to stop eating sugar in the first place."
If your self talk sounds more like the first set of examples, simply view it as an opportunity to to ask that voice in your head why it thinks that. Seriously! Do it. You might be surprised by the answers you get. Approaching your internal self-critic with genuine curiosity (like you would with someone who holds a different viewpoint than you) is one of the quickest ways to disarming the hostility and getting to the root of your self-perceptions.
I've found that in any type of habit change, striking a balance between your inner authority and self-compassion is key. For most of us, the inner critic is a strong voice. It can be overwhelming to face the negative self talk that might come from not sticking with something you wanted to do. While it's beyond the scope of this article, know that these pieces of ourselves that mentally bully us are really just disowned aspects of our own internal landscape that are seeking love, connection, and validation. With that in mind, paying careful attention to the way we think, the language we use, and the way we feel when confronted with the hard parts of change is a compass pointing to engage more deeply with our selves. Integration is the key word here. Imagine if you could recruit the negative self-talking bully in your head to be a force for healthy self-discipline and folllow-through. It starts with listening to what it has to say and not setting up the game to be a win/lose event, but something you can continue to play and get better at as time goes on.
I'm writing this as someone who is currently working on overcoming pieces of my own fixed mindset and as someone who has historically had trouble making changes in my habits. I'm sharing this because I've found this process to be helpful for myself and because I don't think that the generic advice "think positive! you can do it" is very useful for most people in the long run. More often than not, that type of thinking leads to a fixed mindset being masked by a temporary and weak desire for a growth mindset, but not the real deal.
Oh, and one last thing. Your fixed mindset has a strong confirmation bias. It is always looking for ways to confirm what it believes. Each forward moving step along the path helps dislodge fixed mindsets in favor of a growth mindset. Let yourself use both victories and failures as a way to confirm your new growth mindset. It's 100% about the way you perceive it. Consciously take the time to self-assess and prove your fixed mindset wrong.
Ultimately, New Year's resolutions are a big joke we play on ourselves. Year after year, most of us fail to get the punchline. This year, instead of letting your fixed mindset laugh at you, laugh along with your growth mindset as your process unfolds.
David Krantz is an epigenetic coach, musician, and entrepreneur located in Asheville, NC. His unique background and innovative approach to systems health makes his coaching highly valuable for legitimately out-of-the box thinkers and doers. He works with clients from a nutrigenetic and epigenetic standpoint to develop personalized nutrition and lifestyle strategies that support creative expression and maximum life-awesomeness.