The Secret to Behavior Change (That Everyone Overlooks)
How you can actually keep your New Year's resolutions
Posted Jan 14, 2019
Because it’s January, we are being inundated with advice about our New Year’s resolutions. Yet despite all this guidance, only 8 percent of us actually achieve them.
Want 2019 to be different? Me too. Let’s look at a simple approach to get there—one that almost no one uses but works virtually every time.
Many people know Ben Franklin as one of the founding fathers of the United States. One of his quieter triumphs, however, was a life-long commitment to self-improvement.
At age 20, after running two businesses into the ground, Franklin set out on a journey to get better. He created a list of 13 principles of “moral perfection” (things like “Perform without fail what you resolve” and “Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates”).
But Franklin knew the true challenge wasn’t in creating his resolutions—it was fulfilling them. He made a “little book” to track his progress: pages of tables with each virtue in its own row, and each day of the week in its own column.
Every day until his death at age 84, Franklin reviewed the list and made a “little black dot” if his behavior didn’t reflect that day’s virtue. This process took just a few minutes, but the payoff was huge.
And though by Franklin’s own admission, he never quite arrived at true moral perfection, he believed he was “a better and happier man” for his efforts.
So why did Franklin’s method work? Let’s flash to the present. I recently had a call with a coaching client—a CEO whose progress on her development plan has been remarkable. Because I learn just as much from my clients as they learn from me (usually more), I wanted to know her secret.
“Oh that’s easy,” she replied, laughing. “It’s knowing that every week, you’re going to call and ask for an update!” Like Ben Franklin, she knows the most important rule of behavior change: if you frequently measure your progress, you’ll adjust your behavior based on those metrics—and you will get better.
The slightly trickier part can be finding the right approach—as is often the case, there isn’t one right answer. I have a client who tracks his weekly progress using an Excel spreadsheet similar to Ben Franklin’s.
Another option is the free “Impact Yourself Daily” app, which will help you keep track of your progress and send you a reminder to do it (I’ll be using Impact Yourself Daily to help me train for a half marathon I’m running in May!).
But here’s my favorite example: my good friend Marshall Goldsmith actually pays someone to call every day to ask him questions about his goals (for example: “Did I do my best today to be grateful for all my blessings?”).
Someone once asked Marshall why he does this—wasn’t he supposed to be the world’s expert on behavior change?—"Yes,” Marshall replied, “I wrote the theory. That’s why I pay someone to call me—I know how difficult this is to do on my own!”
And whether you choose to hold yourself accountable or ask for help from someone else, the important thing is to figure out what works for you. And as I often tell my coaching clients, it’s okay to use trial and error until you find it!
As Plato said, “Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” To change, then, it’s not enough to want to, or to feel emotionally connected to the outcome—we have to know where we stand. It’s that very knowledge that gives us the power to get better.