Holly Richardson: You are going to change, so you just as well steer your own ship

Is this not the best week of the year?! Christmas is over, the new year is around the corner and the normal routines have been put on hiatus. That means, of course, that we can focus on the next decade.

Just kidding. Kind of.

It used to be that I could recycle my New Year’s resolutions each January. Lose weight. Exercise. Read scriptures more. Yell less. It wasn’t until I got specific about my “why” and detailed in the “how” that I was able to start meeting those goals.

For example, getting diagnosed with Type II diabetes 2 1/2 years ago was finally the kick in the pants I needed to give up my Sodalicious habit (and all other forms of sugar) and lose 45 pounds because I want to be around for a lot more years.

“Resolutions” don’t succeed for a number of reasons besides not knowing our “why.” We want instant results and treat marathons like sprints. We make superficial changes, like taking dietary supplements while still eating unhealthily. We prepare to prepare to prepare to think about changing, but we don’t actually take any action. We hate the process and don’t try to find ways to make it enjoyable or at least tolerable, thinking we can just gut it out (not a good long-term strategy). We don’t track our progress or celebrate small wins. And who wants to pursue goals that suck the joy out of life? No one.

The truth is most real change comes from small, incremental actions that build over time. It’s so easy to over-estimate how much we can achieve in a week or a month, but under-estimate what we can achieve in a year — or a decade.

James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits” says that goals are about the results but systems are how you get there.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals,” he says. “You fall to the level of your systems.”

He recommends four steps to getting the outcomes you want: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy and make it satisfying. Habit stacking, or tying your new behavior to a current behavior to make it both obvious and easy, is one of the best ways to begin a new behavior.

If you think you are “too old” to change, or that you have finally arrived at the person you will be for the rest of your life, you are not alone. Some really interesting research published in January 2013 looked at the “end of history illusion,” or the idea that one had basically stopped changing.

What they found looking at over 19,000 people is that people consistently believed that they had changed a lot over the last decade but would not change much at all in the next decade.

Dr. Daniel Gilbert, one of the researchers working on this project summarized it by saying “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

The consequence of this “end of history illusion” leads people to “overpay for future opportunities to indulge their current preferences.”

Kind of like sucking down 44 ounces of soda a day without thinking diabetes might be in my future. It makes sense, but is perhaps easier said that done: looking down the road to who we would like to be a decade from now can help steer decision-making today.

Does that mean we need to have the next 20 years figured out? Of course not. Taking the next right step and making small but permanent changes is still good advice, but let’s also do it with an eye to the future. If your life did not change course, what would people say about you at your funeral? If, like Ebenezer Scrooge, you don’t like what you see, then start today to become a new person.

My challenge for you this week is two-fold: Spend some time looking back over this last decade and the many changes you’ve experienced. Then, spend time looking forward to this year, but also to the decade ahead and dream big. You’re going to change anyway. You might as well steer the ship.

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.