Happy New Year’s Resolution Quitting Day!

That sounds like a bizarre statement to make but according to the fitness app Strava, the second Friday in January is when most of us give up on new year’s resolutions. It is such a common phenomenon that it has its own name – Quitters Day!

What is it that makes people abandon goals they embraced with such gusto only weeks previously? It is a question I asked myself when I gazed at the sewing machine, jewellery making kit and crochet needles clogging up my cupboard, like ghosts of resolutions past.

Building habit identities for change

Those setting new year’s resolutions genuinely seek change, so what gets in the way? Change is complicated and we each have a different relationship with it. When the buzz of the festive period has faded, we are back into our routines and it is pouring with rain outside, will we jump out of bed at 6.00am, donning those sparkling new running shoes and glide through 5K before work? Probably not. Unless that is, you have created what James Clear in his book Atomic Habits (2018) called a ‘habit identity,’ and sadly for most of us, started long before NYE 2023. Habit identities focus on who we want to become. If your aim is to run that 5k every morning before work, what is it about this aim that resonates with you now? Is your goal to be a fit and healthy person? If so, what actions do fit, and healthy people take? What type of person do you want to be? And why do you want to do it? According to Clear, goals linked to identity are more likely to succeed.  I am curious about identity-based habits. One of the things I have observed with coaching clients, is the identity must be one that you seek, not what you think other people want you to be. That can be tough. Whilst seeking an identity for someone else can provide initial motivation, its less likely to stick.

I spent Christmas and New Year 2023 on the island of Barra on the Outer Hebrides. Others were not surprised that I had made this choice, and whilst some people felt it was a ridiculous choice, they looked forward to hearing about my adventures. I love being outdoors in beautiful scenery, walking and swimming and crucially, away from all the Christmas chaos. It was aligned with my identity. I was house and pet sitting for a local woman, who was away for Christmas. I was enamoured by her house, it was homely, family oriented and full of displays of her crafting expertise. I was impressed by some beautiful blankets, that she had crocheted herself. She suggested I try it. I was under no illusion that I would be a crocheting natural but, on my side, I had a love of learning new things and good old-fashioned determination. She signposted me to another local woman, Sarah, who taught others how to craft at what is known as a craft ceilidh (gathering in English).

I arrived at the ceilidh to a warm welcome and generosity towards my poor crafting skills. A love of learning new things does not equal competence, but Sarah’s patience and careful explanations meant I was at least able to make a start, crocheting a few rows. What was more special than crocheting a few rows, was being with Sarah and others, learning about them and the beautiful island they call home. I admired their crafting skills and was in awe of their achievements. I left the ceilidh with a borrowed ball of wool and commitment to return with a progress update the following week. I spent the next day trying to remember everything I was taught and with the added help of YouTube, I managed to learn a few more stitches. The following day my friend arrived, and I learnt that she had taken up knitting. She showed me a picture of a blanket she knitted and my drive to crack crocheting continued. We spent that night in front of the fire, her knitting, me crocheting and the kittens we were looking after, doing everything in their power to destroy our work. When we returned to the ceilidh, I enjoyed showing off my friend’s skills (like they were my own), was taught some more stitches and learnt more about island life. We arranged to meet Sarah and some friends for a sea swim the following day. After feeling incompetent at the ceilidh, finally I had something I was good at. We spent that evening at a traditional Scottish dance ceilidh. Back to being rubbish again.

Values based habits

Habits and identity arise in coaching when we look at thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviours. Recognising and understanding our values can be key to understanding identity and a powerful decision-making tool when seeking change. This can be huge life change or that new years’ resolution. In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown advocates researching and understanding our values. You can find an exercise to do this on her site here. This work is about being aligned with who we are through conscious action. Acting in alignment with our values is empowering. It feels satisfying. Acting outside of values creates what Brown calls ‘a values rub.’ You may feel resentful, disengaged, or angry. Next time you are pondering a choice, tune into to your feelings, this will give you an indicator if it is aligned with who you are. When you are deciding on that resolution, is it aligned with your identity and values? If not, you will have to work harder to make it stick.

Intentional habits through small steps

Our brains like specifics. They are also geared towards pattern and what has worked well in the past. If your goal for 2024 is to change career because you loathe your current role, you need to get specific about what you do want. Revisit your values. What work based identity to do you want to have? What sort of work would you like to do? What organisational values would align with yours? What transferable skills and qualifications do you need to get there? The temptation could be to look at salary points first and whilst we need money to survive, if financial stability is not one of your values, salary point should be further down your list of considerations. Our brains are hard wired to choose comfort and familiarity over courage and change. Unless you get intentional about what you do want and the small steps to take to get there, the chances are you will end 2024 in the same job or in one that you find equally dissatisfying.

If your goal is to run the London Marathon in 2024 and you have not done much exercise since school, this is going to present a significant challenge for you. The vision of yourself crossing that finishing line can be intoxicating but without the habit identity and small incremental steps you need to build the system of a strong and consistent runner, sadly your chances of success are limited. The good news is you could start building that habit system today and do what James Clear calls, casting a vote for your future self. That could be as small as walking for 15 minutes, five times a week and gradually building from there.  If you have never picked up a crochet needle, a beautiful blanket might be out of reach for you this year. Sadly, I have not picked up a crochet needle since returning home. My brain yearns for that creative outlet but true to my values (nature and adventure), I spend my free time on the hills or in the water. I need to explore how important creativity is to my identity and build the habit system to make it happen.

Courage and compassion to treat comparison

This brings me to the last point, that is compassion and comparison. If the Strava stats are anything to go by, most of us will have quit those resolutions before the month is out or we can at least identify with quitting at some point. It can be tempting to compare ourselves to others, especially their perfect, filtered, online personas. Comparison can lead to change paralysis; this stops us from trying for fear of not being good enough or living up to our perceived standards of others (see next month’s blog for more on this). Failure is a natural part of life, and a great life lesson. Kristin Neff talks about self-compassion to recognise that being imperfect and failing is part of life and practising gentleness and kindness to oneself when we and life falls short of our grand expectations is important. This sets us in good stead to succeed next time.

Questions for lasting change

If you are planning to make any change this year, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What matters to me? (be honest, not what you think should matter or what other people think should matter)
  • Why does this matter?
  • What values is this based on?
  • What can I do to nurture what is important?
  • What can I let go of that gets in the way?
  • What small steps can I take to get closer to what matters?
  • How will I know when I have got there?
  • How will I deal with setbacks?
  • What will my self-talk be when things don’t go to plan?

I would love to hear if you used those questions or about any of your new year triumphs or more importantly, your setbacks.

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Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. New York, Random House.

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: tiny changes, remarkable results : an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York, New York, Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, William Morrow.