It’s finally 2021! What are your new year’s resolutions? Every year, millions of people resolve to lose weight, save more, drink less, or learn an instrument (we can help you with that!). If you’re like me, it’ll be a win just to get through the year without having an existential crisis every week. But did you know a third of resolutions don’t even make it through January? I know people who have totally given up on resolutions entirely because they think they’ll inevitably fail, so why try?
But resolutions don’t have to fail. Many people succeed in changing their lives, adjusting their habits, learning new things, becoming the best versions of themselves. Our students do it every day when they practice their instruments. How?
One of the reasons why resolutions fail and habit forming is so hard is that there are so many misconceptions about how it works. It turns out a lot of the intuition we have about how to achieve our resolutions is wrong. Here are three ideas, backed up by research, that I learned recently that surprised me. Knowing and implementing these things in my life, and at Musicologie, have helped us tremendously and I hope they help you this year too.
Mistake 1: Telling Everyone About Your Resolution
When you come up with a new resolution, what’s the first thing you want to do? Tell someone! First, because it’s exciting to start on a new journey toward a new you, but also because we think if someone else knows about it, they’ll hold us accountable.
Don’t do it! Research shows that when we tell someone about our goals, we’re actually less likely to follow through on them. In a 2009 research article for Psychological Science, Peter Gollwitzer writes:
Behavioral intentions that had been noticed by other people were translated into action less intensively than those that had been ignored.
Why is this? One of the theories is that telling people about your goal gives you a premature sense of accomplishment, so you work a little less hard than you would otherwise. So think twice before you tell everyone about your resolutions. It might not help.
Mistake 2: Trusting Your Willpower
Willpower is something we all think about in terms of building habits and achieving goals and resolution, but I didn’t realize how ineffective it is until I heard a recent interview with Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology who runs a conference on habit forming. She says,
When you think about the behaviors we often want to change in our lives, quitting smoking or eating healthier or exercising more regularly, the challenge, of course, is not to make a one time change, not to exercise well, just today. The challenge is to make a long term change. And the research suggests that willpower might not be the most effective way to go about achieving that.
We think of people who have good habits – those who work out every day, or never eat cake and ice cream – as having a ton of willpower. They are good at fighting that internal voice that says “Cake is good. I want cake!” Conversely people who don’t achieve their goals we think of as lazy. They just don’t exert enough willpower. They give in to the voice.
But that’s not true. Willpower has nothing to do with it. The difference between the people who avoid the cake and those who eat it isn’t self control, it’s that the people who are successful set up their lives so they’re never confronted with the choice to eat cake at all. They don’t have it in their refrigerators, or they don’t go out to eat where they might be tempted to order it.
In other words, rather than relying on your willpower, arrange your life so you don’t have to use your willpower at all. Structure your life so you can’t help but make good decisions.
When we rely on willpower, not only is it not going to work, but when you fail, you might think “Oh I’m a bad person, I’m lazy, I just don’t have enough self control.” That’s a terrible place to be!
Instead of blaming your lack of self control, you can look for ways to set up your life so those temptations aren’t as present and you’ll be more likely to succeed.
Mistake 3: Thinking it Has to be Difficult
When I think of high achievers, people who are fit, who accomplish their goals, I often think of a person who wakes up at 5am to go running, or someone who is on an extreme diet like Larry David. And honestly, those things sound terrible.
But that’s not what resolutions should be. A resolution should be fun, even if it’s good for us. This is something we talk about at Musicologie all. the. time. People think practicing an instrument needs to be hard. They have ideas of the Russian piano teacher with a ruler, or Mozart’s dad waking him up in the middle of the night to practice and think that’s what learning music is. Parents come in thinking they need to make their kids practice 30 minutes a day right away or else!
None of that is the right way to build habits and achieve goals. Instead, you need to make it easy and fun. Grease the wheels of your goals. Find an easy way to fit it into your lifestyle. If it’s fun, it’ll be something you want to do every day, and before you know it, it’ll be a habit. Before you realize it, you’ll have lost weight, learned that Beatles song on the piano, or stopped eating so much cake.
So how do you do that? The way we do it at Musicologie is to work on songs our students genuinely enjoy every step of the way. We know that if a student loves the songs they’re working on, they will practice more, spend more time at their instrument, and get better, faster. Music is an easy one, because everyone loves music. And there are so many amazing, fun games to play that reinforce note reading, technique, theory and ear training – even for adults! You don’t have to lock yourself in a room and play Hanon for an hour a day.
2021 and Beyond
The point of a resolution, at least for me, isn’t to do something just this January or just this year. It’s to build habits that help me become the best version of myself. It’s a life-long journey. I’ve used these ideas to arrange my life so that goals and resolutions become fun, easy additions to my day. And after a while, I don’t have to think about them. They become, well, habit.
I hope you can find some use in them as well. Comment below with your resolutions and the tips you’ve used to achieve them – I’d love to hear!