Tracking and Stacking

When it comes to the success rate of New Year’s resolutions, the exact numbers vary. Some say only about 8% of people reach their goals. Others say it’s more like 20%. But the bottom line is this: the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by February. Do any of us really need a statistic to feel confident about that reality?

Perhaps the biggest reason that resolutions fail is that we make our goals too big. As James Clear’s new runaway bestseller Atomic Habits shows, it’s a far better strategy to start with a goal so small that you can’t possibly fail. This is why my first challenge for Project Reconnect has been reaching out for just 15 minutes a day. Halfway through the month of January, I’m coming to the rather sheepish realization that maybe I should have started even smaller.

One thing I’ve been grappling with as I’ve tried to implement this goal is just how many forces we are working against when trying to prioritize connection. In a society so obsessed with productivity and speed, taking time for relationships can feel like a guilty pleasure at worst, or be relegated to a late-night after-thought at best. So how do I bump relationships back to the top of my priority list? This is the question animating my year-long challenge to reconnect. As I’ve struggled to hit my daily goal for reaching out, I’ve discovered two additional habit forming strategies that I’ll be using to help me “do relationships” every day.

Tracking

The first new strategy I’ll be trying is tracking. The psychology shows that self-monitoring is a key to successful habit formation, which is why utilizing even a simple system for tracking progress toward a goal can dramatically increase your success rate. There are dozens of apps you can buy to help with this, of course, but given that the smartphone can itself be a rabbit hole of disconnection, I think it’s best to steer clear of that obstacle. My husband, the habits coach, recommends the low-tech method: a calendar on the wall.

Each day I hit my goal, I’ll mark it with an X. The motivation comes in trying not to break the streak of Xs. The visual cue is a key–watching those Xs add up makes for powerful motivation to keep at something. I know this trick seems ridiculously simple–even blindingly obvious. But whenever I’m tempted to be dismissive, I’ll just remind myself that I’m the one consulting research scientists to figure out how to make friends and prioritize connection–something my five year-old does without a second thought.

And then there’s this–I love this little nugget–since positive emotions support and speed up neuroplasticity, making sure that you generate positive emotion by celebrating your “stupid small” win every day helps solidify the new neural pathway you’re trying to form. Because when it comes to prioritizing connection, I’m not only fighting cultural norms, but also the neural pathways in my brain that have formed around the belief that getting things done and hurrying through life is more important than building solid and supportive relationships. Taking a moment to celebrate each time I override that wiring will help the override stick.

Stupid small daily goal for connecting? Check. Calendar on the wall? Check. Plans to celebrate each success with a one-minute dance party? Check!

Stacking

The second strategy I’ll be using to support my goal is called stacking. This is when you take an existing habit–one that’s already well-formed and solidly in place–and stack your new goal on top of it. Studies show that one of the best ways to do this is by using “if/then” or “when/then” statements. The key is to stack a new habit on top of something that you know you’ll do every day no matter what–like brushing your teeth, or putting on your pants. It my case, it will look like this: “When I stop working to have lunch, then I’ll spend 15 minutes connecting.” This is especially important for me since I work alone in my quiet house–unlike most people, lunch is one of the loneliest moments of my day.

What’s amazing about this strategy is that it utilizes your brain’s expert ability to look for things that go together. So if you train yourself to pair “eating lunch” with “connecting,” your brain will literally pop a reminder to connect into your conscious mind each time you sit down to eat. So rather than reaching for a book, article, or an app, I’ll make a call, send a text, or write a note to a friend. That’s the goal, anyway.

Successful authors say you become a writer by writing. And when it comes to community, you become a connector by connecting. The magic is in the daily doing.

I'm a writer who's spending 2019 engaging in a yearlong personal journey back to community, connection, and relationship. It's called Project Reconnect. Join me!

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