Like any “perfect” New Year’s Eve party — think that iconic scene in When Harry Met Sally — New Year’s resolutions belong to the fantasy world of Hollywood. I spent the final hours of 2021 making a Lego pot plant with my partner and sipping on a virgin G&T. It was the best NYE I’ve ever had and there wasn’t a resolution to be made.
I like to set my goals around April, when there’s no pressure. For me, January resolutions are over-the-top gestures, they’re unsustainable thinking and inevitably they set you up for failure. As someone who quit drinking after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I like to think I know a thing or two about setting big goals and, crucially, achieving them.
I wasn’t what you might call an alcoholic, but in a culture obsessed with drinking, my journey to becoming sober curious has been no easy feat. I knew alcohol and stress affected my neurological function and it didn’t make sense to do damage willingly. I wanted to work with my body, not against it, and I saw my drinking habit as part of a broader problem of self-sabotage. I had set goals in the past, made big promises to myself in January and predictably failed a few months into the year. The reasons my goals didn’t succeed, and the reasons I drank, were often the same: I was reluctant to deal with reality and I had a deep-rooted belief that I wasn’t good enough.
My problems with alcohol began when I left my husband and moved to a small rural town to write a book. Away from friends and family, and mostly holed up in a caravan park, I went to the one place I knew I could be surrounded by people — the pub. I made a new friend who would often drink two bottles of wine in one evening, but I was too caught up in trying to have fun to notice that either of us were drinking too much.
Shortly after, I started seeing someone who drank heavily in the evening. It took me far too long to realise he was abusive. That’s the problem with alcohol, it numbs everything, but eventually it all comes crashing down like a year’s worth of mighty hangovers in one. By then, I had neglected my book and accumulated a lot of self-hating habits that come from trauma and emotional and physical abuse.
I knew I needed to make some big changes, re-centre my head and work towards a life I wanted to live. I got a life coach and slowly I began rebuilding my self-worth, taking small, sober steps. My life coach would often chant at me, which was as weird as it sounds, but a lot of what he said stuck: “You’re treating yourself like this because you crossed your own values.” He was right. I went back to the drawing board and thought about what I valued and what sort of life I wanted to live.
Six years later, I have slowly created a cache of good habits. There have been a few slip-ups, but treating myself with respect is now as normal to me as breathing. Over the years, I learned a lot about how to work with, rather than against, my brain. Here are my tried-and-true lessons:
Think in days, not goals
Forget your big goals for a minute. What do you want your days to look like? Your life isn’t made up of achieved goals, but of hours and days. So consider how you want to spend your allotted 24 hours. What does your dream day look like? This is the best place to start when setting and planning to achieve your goals.
This method also protects you from making goals simply because you think you “should” be doing something, rather than making changes that align with your big picture ambitions.
Go small or go home
Once you’ve set your long-term goal, plan backwards until you’ve identified the first tiny step. Start there. If you want to run a marathon, begin with a five-minute jog today. If you want to quit drinking, don’t reach for a glass of wine this evening. If you want to write a book, start with one sentence today. All of those minutes will eventually yield one remarkable, achieved goal.
Patrick O’Shaughnessy, author of Growth Without Goals, says the key to success is small actions repeated daily, which allow growth and achievement to stack up. “Success is about building a set of daily practices; it is about growth without goals. Continuous, habitual practice trumps achievement-based success,” he says.
This tactic is often called “tiny habits”, a phrase coined by B.J. Fogg and popularised by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. “In order to design successful habits and change your behaviours, you should do three things,” writes Fogg. “Stop judging yourself. Take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviours. Embrace mistakes as discoveries and use them to move forward.” Tiny habits work because they’re too small to spook you brain into retreat. But when we complete a tiny task, the sense of achievement is huge and we feel motivated to do it again. Suddenly, we have a new habit.
Last year, my sober curious journey took a nose dive. I was feeling unworthy of a new relationship and turned to drink to ease my insecurities. I found my way back by committing to five minutes of yoga each day — just five minutes, nothing more, nothing huge. I shrunk the risk of failure right down. After a few weeks I was practising for half-an-hour each day. I wrangled my mojo back, built my self-confidence from the ground up until I felt buoyed enough to say yes to a micro-business course. The ball was rolling, my belief in myself compounding, and I wasn’t turning to alcohol to feel good anymore because it was all coming from me. This is the magic of tiny habits — they make your inner critic tiny too by taking away its opportunity to second-guess your ability to tackle big goals.
At first, tiny habits might not seem radical enough, especially if you want to make a big change. But big changes are rarely sustainable when tackled all at once. Commit to small, daily practices because, as Will Durant said when paraphrasing Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” In other words, what we do every day accounts for so much more than what we do every so often.
Now go big
Once you’re in the groove of small, compounding change, it’s much easier to think big. You’re on the trajectory to greatness, so look up and think huge. Bill Gates said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.” Every now and again, I do my own “Life in Ten Years” project. Minute-by-minute, I write down what my ideal day looks like in one decade.
Learning to deal with reality, rather than numbing yourself with alcohol, was just the start for me. I was reaping the effects of a clear path and healthy body, but once I mastered taking care of myself, I was able to really dream big. I envisioned a home near the beach, a writing career and a trusting relationship with a good man who treated me well — even a couple of kids. Six years later, I have happily achieved most of the things on that list, and I’m well on my way to ticking off the rest.
Picturing yourself in your best life is a powerful tool because it sparks a flame within you; it puts a fire in your belly that can fuel you through the hard graft. That’s why New Year’s resolutions are so popular — it feels so good to think about what could be. But the magic of the “10 years” exercise is you can give your brain that adrenaline boost and avoid its change-resistant self-sabotage because your dream achievements are at a healthy distance. You can’t achieve any of this tomorrow, so your brain doesn’t shift to protect you from it right now. You’re simply planting a powerful seed.
Hack yourself happy
Elusive as that seed may seem, this tactic has been key to “hacking” my brain. The part of your brain called your Reticular Activating System — RAS — controls your motor functions, sleep and waking, and is the brain’s consciousness gatekeeper. Our brains are supercomputers, but if we had to process all the stimuli around us, our brains would explode (or something like that). That’s the job of the RAS: it filters, highlighting what we think is important. In theory, then, we can train our brain to focus on what we want it to.
Life coach, speaker and author Mel Robbins says the RAS notices extra neural activity when we see something we want; “It’s called the Zeigarnik effect. It opens up a little checklist in your brain and says: ‘Oh wait a minute, her nervous system just lit up. She’s all excited about this thing. Let’s put this on the list. It’s important. Let it in.’”
Melbourne-based Life and Leadership coach Katrina Bourke says following our feelings can help us create more truthful goals. “A goal might be, ‘by the end of this year I want to weigh 68 kilos’,” says Katrina. “But I’m interested in getting to the heart of that goal, so I use ‘visioning’. I ask my clients what reaching that goal is going to feel like, look like, smell like? Often, it’s about feeling confident or feeling happy to have a photo taken,” she says. “That opens lots of possibilities. If I want to feel more confident, I might work on some other areas as well.”
The greatest lesson I’ve learned in achieving my goals is the importance of working with my brain, rather than setting it up to fail by expecting a Hollywood transformation, or simply crossing my fingers and hoping motivation will get me through. If I want to make a change, or achieve something new, I keep my mind on a distant place and take small, actionable steps each day to get there.
Rebecca Whitehead is a freelance journalist and content writer living in Melbourne.