How are you persisting on your New Year's resolutions?
Surveys and other research indicate that most folks typically give up in the first month. I'm more or less crushing mine, but it's because my 2023 goals are minuscule, and that's by design. My hopes heading into this year were to create small and sustainable habits that may lead to bolder life changes.
You did not scoff when I shared with you some of my resolutions — making my bed first thing in the morning and putting things back where I found them before I leave a room. It got novelist Minneapolis Alison McGhee thinking about her own tiny changes.
A couple of years ago, she was despondent over how few books she managed to read in a year. So she made a personal rule for herself, "which was that I would read for 10 minutes each morning while drinking my one perfect cup of coffee," she wrote me. "No jumping into email or anything else. I figured it would take me at least a month to make this habit stick and that it would be difficult. It took all of five minutes that first day, and suddenly I was back in childhood, reading all the time, looking forward to lunch so I could keep reading (I work by myself at home), reading reading reading."
Last year she read 52 books, "which for a slow reader like me is a beautiful thing," she says. "It all began with a tiny change."
As a fellow plodding reader, who is often too distracted by the next shiny title to finish my current one, I was blown away by McGhee's pace of devouring a book a week. She conceded that some of her reading list included children's literature, wonderful works by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. It dawned on me that I actually have been plowing through all sorts of books like these — as part of bedtime read-alouds with my sons — but I had not counted them among my personal list. Chalk up Ralph S. Mouse for a tiny win.
McGhee made her tiny rule more stickable by a brilliant incentivization: By pairing a desired behavior with a reward — in this case, reading 10 minutes along with the perfect cup of coffee — she trained her brain to associate her new action with something pleasurable. (I've tried to do that, as well, such as saving a favorite Netflix series for my dreaded chore of folding endless laundry.) A tantalizing cup of joe can be a motivation elixir, as Kim Brossoit of Rochester noted.
"My tiny change has been to have at least one full glass of water in the morning before I can have my coffee," Brossoit said. "I feel so much better starting my day off with water."
A few days into 2023, I realized my digital addictions were getting in the way of my best intentions. After all, how could I remember to put things where they belong while walking away from the kitchen when my nose was stuck in my phone? This is why Erika Scheurer's suggestion was a game-changer for me.
"Every time your phone pings with a notification, before you check it, pause and take one conscious breath," says Scheurer, an English professor at the University of St. Thomas. "'One conscious breath' means breathing in deeply, exhaling completely, and being fully present in the moment."
That's it. That's her tiny hack.
Scheurer has encouraged her students to do the same, and they told her the practice has helped them realize the volume of notifications they were receiving. The breath also made them feel more relaxed and intentional about the decision to check their phone, as opposed to submitting to the "automatic unthinking reaction," she said. Some chose not to reach for the phone, or even turned off their notifications entirely.
Scheurer says that small pause after the ping helps her feel more in control, not "mindlessly reactive."
My brother's childhood friend Jeff told me he worked mindlessness into his favor while embarking on his challenge of hitting the gym every morning.
"The life hack, however, is twofold. First, I go to bed wearing my workout clothing for the next morning. In the winter, I literally have my workout shorts under a pair of sweatpants or whatever I am sleeping in. Second, I have a caffeine protein drink in the fridge ready to go. I literally wake up, go to the bathroom, half-ass brush my teeth, and drink a caffeinated protein drink and am out the door in less than 10 minutes. The life hack is that I do this so quickly that I can't even decide to sleep in."
But it's working. He's shed 20 pounds over the past year.
Ben Meyers of St. Louis Park said he identified with my struggle to keep a tidier house. Myers, a mental health therapist, spoke my language when he lamented: "I live in a house with two little kids, and it's a zoo. Every room is chaotic and filled with toys," he told me. "Cleaning has me wandering from room to room, and I don't ever feel productive. It's stressful."
His rule for 2023 was to clean for three minutes in only one specific room per day. You can google "how to clean my room fast" and come up with all sorts of tricks to make a quick decluttering as efficient as possible. (Hints: Set a timer or play a five-minute song, work your way around a room in one direction, and just focus on the most obvious chores to tackle.)
Joy Donley of Maplewood and her husband, Michael, turned a weekly sedentary affair — rooting for their beloved Vikings — into a prompt to get moving themselves. Rather than staying seated for the duration of the game, they used commercial breaks to walk in place, do squats or floss (the dance, not the dental hygiene ritual, though some readers also chimed in about that, as well).
"It's amazing how out of breath one can get during a commercial break," she wrote me. "We've often had sore muscles the next day, but our bodies are much happier."
The Vikings' crushing demise in the playoffs means the Donleys have lost a key reminder to get in their steps this season. But the couple now have three hours back to themselves on Sundays, plenty of time for more tiny changes.