Do you know the feeling?
You’re excited about the new year. You’ve decided your resolutions. And you can’t wait to start working on them.
But as the new year rolls around, the situation changes. After a few weeks (or maybe just a few days), your initial inspiration runs out. Your good intentions start to wear off. And before you know it, you’ve quit your goals… again.
If you can relate to this scenario, you’re not alone. Research shows that nine out of ten people fail to achieve their New Year’s resolutions.
Accomplishing your goals can be terribly hard. But it doesn’t have to be. With the right strategies in place, it gets much easier — and even a lot of fun!
In this guide, I’ll share all the strategies you need along with straightforward action steps. To make it as easy as possible for you to implement everything we’ll cover, I’ve put together a companion resource:
Then grab your favorite beverage, and let’s make 2020 your best year ever! 🙂
How to Use This Guide: Be a Warrior of the Mind
The thinkers of early Greek philosophy weren’t interested in just understanding how to live well — they were committed to actually living well.
In his book, The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, psychotherapist Donald Robertson writes1:
The ancients conceived of the ideal philosopher as a veritable warrior of the mind, a spiritual hero akin to Hercules himself, but since the demise of the Hellenistic schools, the philosopher has become something more bookish, not a warrior, but a mere librarian of the mind.
The warrior vs. librarian metaphor is very useful because it highlights a common problem.
Many people read tons of material like this, but they don’t implement what they learn. They are librarians of the mind, merely cataloging ideas in their head.
And then there are a few people who not only read, but take action on what they learn. They are the warriors of the mind, actively bringing the ideas into the battlefield of life.
Keep this in mind as you move through the strategies ahead. You can either read them as a librarian and learn some new stuff. Or you can use them as a warrior — and change your life forever.
This guide contains all the strategies you need to make 2020 your best year ever. But that will only happen if you put them to use.
So, I encourage you to take the path of the warrior. It won’t be as comfortable as being a librarian, but it will make all the difference in how much value you get out of this guide.
Are you with me? Let’s march on!
Strategy #1: Celebrate the Past Year
Have you heard the Henry Ford quote: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”? Well, it turns out that there is scientific support for that idea.
Albert Bandura is one of the most influential psychologists in the world. And he has found that “self-efficacy” — a belief that you can achieve what you want to achieve — is crucial for success.
Research shows that: “Individuals who have high self-efficacy will exert sufficient effort that, if well executed, leads to successful outcomes, whereas those with low self-efficacy are likely to cease effort early and fail.”2
If you believe you can achieve your goals, you’ll keep going despite adversity. But if you don’t believe you can achieve them, you’ll quickly give up. So, before you do anything else, you need to create a strong sense of self-efficacy.
And the best way to do that is through what researchers call “mastery experience.” Or, in other words, past success. Wins from the past — big or small — are a great way to boost confidence in the present.
So, make a habit out of celebrating your wins this year. Deliberately feast on them, and you’ll gradually build a self-image of someone who succeeds. We’ll begin right now by celebrating your successes from the past year.
Strategy #1 : Action Steps
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What new skills did I develop?
- What situations did I handle particularly well?
- How did I make a positive difference for others?
- What goals did I achieve?
- What dreams came true?
Then write down at least 10 successes — big or small — that you experienced in the past year. When you’re done, feast on your wins! Read through your list, allow yourself to feel proud of your accomplishments, and tell yourself: “That’s like me!”
Strategy #2: Master the Fundamentals
In the world of sports, a ruthless focus on the fundamentals is the hallmark of many successful coaches.
Vince Lombardi, one of the most successful coaches in the history of American football, started his summer training camps by showing his players what a football looks like.3
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, taught his players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.4
Success requires strong fundamentals.
And the game of life works the same way. If you want to feel great and perform at your very best, there are three foundational habits you need to master: sleep, nutrition, and movement.
Take care of them, and you’ll approach each day calm, focused, and energized. Neglect them, and you’ll be in a constant state of stress, brain fog, and fatigue.
Of course, you already know that. But, if you’re like most people, you still overlook these habits merely because they are so basic, simple, and mundane.
So, this year, let’s make sure that you’re putting on your socks and tying your shoes the right way. It will make everything else so much easier.
Strategy #2: Action Steps
For each of your fundamental habits of sleep, nutrition, and movement — ask yourself these two questions:
- What’s the #1 thing I need to start doing?
- What’s the #1 thing I need to stop doing?
Here are some examples:
- Sleep: Start a “pre-sleep” ritual to get ready for bed each night, and stop drinking coffee after lunch.
- Nutrition: Start eating salads for lunch at work, and stop having candy as afternoon snacks.
- Movement: Start taking yoga classes, and stop sitting for long periods.
Strategy #3: Know Your Cornerstones
We all have many areas of our lives that we want to improve. In fact, there are so many of them that it can get overwhelming.
That’s why I find this piece of wisdom from Sigmund Freud helpful: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
Much like sleep, nutrition, and movement are the fundamentals of well-being and performance, love and work are the cornerstones of meaning and happiness.
So, what we’re going to do now is make sure that your cornerstones are solidly in place. Here’s how I like to approach it:
Start by identifying who you want to be in each of these areas. Then, set a goal that will help you live in integrity with that identity. And, finally, determine the #1 daily habit that will lead you to that goal.
Identity ⇨ Goal ⇨ Habit
This approach is helpful because it helps you move from abstract theory to concrete practice. You’ll uncover who you want to be and what you need to do every single day to be that person. Here’s what it looks like for me:
Identity: A remarkable writer.
Goal: Publish 100 articles next year.
Habit: 3 hours of focused writing first thing every morning.
Identity: A present fellow human.
Goal: 50 hours of meditation in the next year.
Habit: 10 minutes of daily meditation.
These are the identities, goals, and habits that are important to me. How about you?
Strategy #3: Action Steps
For each of the cornerstone life areas of work and love, ask yourself:
- What’s my identity? Who do I want to be?
- What’s my goal? What target will help me live in integrity with my identity?
- What’s my habit? What #1 daily action will lead me to my goal?
Strategy #4: Create Lasting Change
Psychologists tell us that there are two systems in our brains: the rational system and the emotional system.
In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt presents an excellent analogy for these two systems — a human rider on top of an elephant5.
The rider represents the rational system; the part of us that plans and problem-solves. And the elephant represents the emotional system; the part of us that provide power for the journey.
Dan and Chip Heath elaborated on this model in their book Switch and added a third component — the path that the elephant and the rider are traveling6. This represents the environmental part of the analogy.
With all these components in place, the complete picture looks something like this:
To create lasting change, you need to take care of all the elements in this analogy.
The rider needs clear instructions of where to go. The elephant needs the motivation to follow the riders instructions. And the path needs to be cleared so that the elephant and the rider can travel effortlessly.
So, what we’re going to do next is make sure we’ve got all of that covered for the habits we’ve chosen in the previous strategies.
Strategy #4: Action Steps
For each of the habits related to your fundamentals (sleep, nutrition, and movement), and cornerstones (work and love), do the following:
- Instruct the Rider: Create an “if-then” plan that specifies when you’ll do the habit. Complete this formula: If [situation], Then I will [habit]. For example: If it’s 8 pm, then I’ll run my “pre-sleep” ritual.
- Motivate the Elephant: Write down the benefits you’ll experience if you make this change happen, and what you’d risk losing if you don’t. For example: I’ll feel radiantly alive, focused, and happy vs. I’ll feel tired, distracted, and grumpy.
- Clear the Path: Make your habit as easy as possible to do, and competing behaviors as hard as possible to do. For example: Make your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet, and put all your screens in another room.
Strategy #5: Optimize for Flow
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the world’s leading researcher on “flow:”7
A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
You’ve probably noticed that if something is too hard, you’ll feel anxious. And if something is too easy, you’ll get bored. But if something is in that sweet spot where your skills match the challenge, you’ll find it enjoyable. This is flow in a nutshell:
Research shows that we tend to be happiest and most productive when we’re in flow. But we rarely set ourselves up to experience it consistently.
Most people have a tendency to set overly optimistic goals and, as a result, spend most of their time in anxiety.
Luckily, we can easily mitigate that by creating what I like to call “flow habits”; behaviors that are deliberately designed to optimize for flow.
Most of the time that means reducing the challenge to avoid anxiety. And the way to do that is to start small.
You want to focus on consistency over intensity. Instead of big efforts, you go for small wins. By doing that, you’ll create sustainable habits that will grow naturally over time.
Strategy #5: Action Steps
Once again, go through the habits related to your fundamentals (sleep, nutrition, and movement), and cornerstones (work and love). This time, optimize them for flow. Here are some examples:
- If you want to create a “pre-sleep” ritual, start with just a two-minute breathing exercise.
- If you’re going to eat only salads for lunch at work, begin with having a salad only once a week.
- If you want to do three hours of deep work every morning, start with just 20 minutes.
Strategy #6: Measure Your Progress
Research shows that merely asking people to track what they do immediately and significantly improves their performance in that area.
For example, studies have shown that people who track their steps with a pedometer increase their physical activity by 27%8.
What gets measured gets improved. So, in this strategy, we’re going to look at two simple and powerful tools for doing that.
The first tool is called a habit calendar, and it looks something like this:
(When you get The 2020 Personal Mastery Workbook, you’ll also get a free habit calendar.)
To use it, you simply write down the habits you want to track in the top row and check them off as you complete them. Returning to the Rider and Elephant metaphor, this has two major benefits:
It motivates the Elephant. Each time you check off a habit, you’ll get a sense of accomplishment that reinforces the behavior. And the longer the streak gets, the more you’ll push yourself to keep it going.
It instructs the Rider. Each time you look at the calendar, you’ll know exactly what to do next. And the streaks provide valuable data you can use to improve your performance in the future.
The second tool is a weekly review; a 15-minute weekly time-block that you use to:
Celebrate your progress. Review your wins — big or small — and keep telling yourself: “That’s like me!” That way, you’ll strengthen your self-efficacy and build a powerful self-image.
Analyze what needs work. Revise and iterate your daily habits. By doing that, you’ll spend more time in the flow channel. And that, in turn, will make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goals.
Strategy #6: Action Steps
- Create your habit calendar. Write down your flow habits in the top row, and put the calendar someplace where you’ll have easy access to it every day.
- Schedule your weekly review. Set aside a recurring 15-minute weekly time-block to celebrate your progress, analyze what needs work, and iterate your habits.
Strategy #7: Use Commitment Devices
Throughout history, people have used many strategies to commit themselves to what they want and need to get done.
A classic, prototypical example is the story of Odysseus. He ordered his men to plug their ears with beeswax and tie his body to the mast of the ship so he could listen to the songs of the sirens without being lured into jumping overboard.
Another is Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés’s bold move to destroy his ships to remove the possibility of retreat and thereby increase the chances of his men defeating the Mayans.
These stories are great metaphors for everyday life. Just like Odysseus, you have modern sirens trying to seduce you. Social media, email, games, apps, and movies are constantly “calling for you.”
And just like Cortés, you have your own conquests to make. That could be things like writing an essay for school, finishing a report for work, sticking to an exercise routine, and so on.
So, how do you resist the sirens and complete your conquests? Well, you use the strategies of Odysseus and Hernán Cortés. If you know sirens will be seducing you later, you tie yourself to the mast. If you have a conquest to make, you destroy the ships behind you.
These days, economists refer to these kinds of strategies as commitment devices9: “means with which to lock yourself into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose but that produces a desired result.”
We can divide commitment devices into three categories — physical, digital, and social — and they can all be very effective in changing behavior.
Strategy #7: Action Steps
Review the habits in your habit calendar and ask yourself what commitment devices you can use to resist the sirens and complete your conquests. If you, for example, want to go to the gym regularly you could use these commitment devices:
- Physical: Buy a long-term gym membership instead of single day passes.
- Digital: Sign a commitment contract at StickK.com and put some money at stake.
- Social: Team up with a workout partner and hold each other accountable.
Then, decide exactly when and where you’ll put your commitment devices in place.
Strategy #8: Be Your Own Biggest Supporter
Now, before you go make 2020 your best year ever, I want to share one final strategy. Depending on how self-critical you are, it might just be the most important one of all. How often do you tell yourself stuff like:
“You’re so lazy. You’ll never get this done. You’re such a failure.”
These are things we would never say to other people. And yet, we usually have no problem saying them to ourselves.
When it comes to motivating other people, we understand that harsh criticism won’t be helpful. But when it comes to motivating ourselves, our attitude is different.
For some reason, we think that we need to be hard on ourselves to achieve our goals. And that’s a big problem, not only because heavy self-criticism makes us feel bad, but also because it makes us much less likely to achieve our goals.
Stacking shame and guilt on top of a setback is not helpful. If anything, it makes it even harder to bounce back.
So, instead of being your own worst critic, be your own biggest supporter. Stop bringing yourself down, and start lifting yourself up. Instead of criticizing, offer yourself compassion.
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff has a useful exercise for doing that10. Whenever you feel the impulse to be self-critical, use a self-compassion mantra. For example:
“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself.”
It might feel awkward at first but, with time, offering yourself this kind of support will help you feel and perform better than ever before.
Strategy #8: Action Steps
- Create a self-compassion mantra that affirms that you’re aware of the pain, that everyone makes mistakes, and that you want to offer yourself support. Make sure to phrase it in a way that feels right to you.
- Whenever you have a setback, repeat the mantra to yourself. If it helps, you can also place your hands on your heart, and feel the warmth and gentle touch of your hand on your chest.
How to Make 2020 Your Best Year Ever, Quick Summary
- Strategy #1: Celebrate the Past Year: Build self-efficacy through past success.
- Strategy #2: Master Your Fundamentals: Take care of your sleep, nutrition, and movement.
- Strategy #3: Know Your Cornerstones: Generate meaning and happiness through love and work.
- Strategy #4: Create Lasting Change: Instruct the rider, motivate the elephant, and clear the path.
- Strategy #5: Optimize for Flow: Design your behaviors for happiness and productivity.
- Strategy #6: Measure Your Progress: Create a habit calendar and schedule a weekly review.
- Strategy #7: Use Commitment Devices: Commit yourself to resist the sirens and complete your conquests.
- Strategy #8: Be Your Own Biggest Supporter: Overcome setbacks with a self-compassion mantra.
Final Words: Line Up Your Dominoes
Did you know that a domino can knock over another domino that is about 1.5 times larger than itself?11
So, imagine that you line up 13 dominoes in a chain where each brick is larger than the previous one.
The first domino is tiny — only five millimeters high, and one millimeter thick. It’s so small that you need a tweezer to put in place.
The last brick is substantially bigger. It’s three feet tall and weighs 100 pounds.
Push the tiny domino over and — BOOM! More and more power amplifies as each brick is knocked over.
In fact, there’s two billion times more energy in the last sequence than the first. That’s a lot of accumulated power.
So much so that if you had 29 dominoes instead of 13, you could knock over a final brick that is as tall as the Empire State Building.
I’m telling you this because your daily habits work the same way. It doesn’t matter if you need a tweezer to put your first flow habits in place.
If you just keep showing up, putting check marks in your habit calendar, and revising your approach as you go, your behaviors will expand over time.
And a year from now, you’ll be amazed at how much progress you’ve made.
But it all starts with those tiny first dominoes. So, if you haven’t already, I warmly encourage you to download your free copy of The 2020 Self-Mastery Workbook and start lining them up.
Your future self will be happy you did.
Here’s to your best year ever!
- The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy by Donald J. Robertson
- Self-Efficacy And Work-Related Performance: A Meta-Analysis by Alex Stajkovic & Fred Luthans
- When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss
- Coach John Wooden’s lesson on shoes and socks by Claudia Luther
- The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Pedometers help people count steps to get healthy by Michelle L. Brandt
- The Stomach-Surgery Conundrum by Stephen J. Dubner & Steven D. Levitt
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff
- Domino Chain Reaction