Welcome to 2021! How do you feel?
The beginning of January is such an emotionally-loaded time. On the one hand, it brings a lot of hope. Especially after 2020, we all crave a clean slate, a chance to start anew and make this year better than the last one.
On the other hand, a new beginning often comes with an enormous amount of stress. Yet again, you feel pressured to improve yourself. “From now on, things will be different,” you promise yourself in your mind. But deep down, you’re anxious about how hard it might be to make that difference.
Especially if you came up with New Year’s resolutions — again. The beginning of January is when you need to start following through on them, and that’s scary.
But what if, in 2021, you tackled self-improvement a little differently? What if you decided not to police yourself by following strict diet rules, exercise plan, or quitting a bad habit overnight?
What if there was a gentler and, at the same time, a more effective approach to making 2021 your year?
The Trap of New Year’s Resolutions
We heard many times that New Year’s resolutions don’t work — or at least, that they aren’t an optimal approach to changing our lives.
So why do we keep making them?
According to History.com, New Year resolutions date back as early as 4,000 years ago, in ancient Babylon. In the tradition continued by the Romans and early Christians, those resolutions were mostly about offering promises of good conduct to god (or gods).
Today, we still make New Year’s resolutions — but these are mostly promises to ourselves. Usually, they’re about self-improvement or professional goals, such as quitting bad habits, losing weight, starting a business, or finally following through on a passion project.
Year after year, millions of people make New Year’s resolutions — and fail. It’s common to see gyms get full in the first weeks of January and then go back to normal by early March. Have you ever asked yourself why this keeps happening over and over every year?
Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. says that one reason why resolutions fail is that they aren’t consistent with the self-stories we hold about ourselves:
“Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-stories. Most of this decision-making based on self-stories happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.”
Your self-story is what you currently believe about yourself. If it doesn’t align with your resolutions, it will be extremely hard for you to keep them.
For example, if you think of yourself as a smoker, a resolve to quit smoking will be challenging. Same for starting a business when you don’t think you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. That’s because, as Weinschenk points out, “You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are” — consciously or not.
Therefore, the first question to ask yourself is:
What is your current self-story — and what is it made of?
How Lifestyle Design Is Different From Resolutions
One way to approach that question is from the angle of personal values.
A big part of your self-story is an extension of the values that direct your life. However, these aren’t necessarily your true, heartfelt ones — but those you adopted in the process of social conditioning. You may be clinging to a false identity based on your past mistakes, criticisms, and failures.
For example, if you weren’t a good student at school, your environment may have told you that this was because you were lazy. As a result, you may still see yourself as lacking the motivation to change. Even if you set a New Year’s resolution — let’s say, to run three times a week — this part of your self-story sabotages your efforts.
Sooner or later, you’re likely to quit. And this won’t necessarily be because you’re lazy — but because you believe you are. Can you see the difference?
Those self-stories can be powerful, even if they’re not true. Instead of focusing on New Year’s resolutions, you may be better off rewiring your story in the first place. One way to do it is through a conscious lifestyle design.
Lifestyle design is a deliberate approach to shaping your self-story based on your innermost values. This is about deciding what you want to believe about yourself. Then, you can translate it into the way you structure your days, weeks, and months — which, ultimately, make up your lifestyle.
Lifestyle design differs from New Year’s resolutions in a few ways.
- It’s holistic. With lifestyle design, you don’t concern yourself with separate behaviors. Instead, you look at your life as an interconnected system of events, feelings, and actions. You prioritize the big picture, and that can be awe-inspiring.
- It’s positive. When you approach change with the tools of lifestyle design, you focus on what you want to see more of — rather than what you should eliminate.
- It’s conscious. We often make New Year’s resolutions without looking for the deeper “why” behind them. For example, you may resolve to lose weight just because it’s been on your mind for years. With lifestyle design, however, you can look at the values that drive your willingness to change. This may mean you decide that being more loving towards your body is more important than shedding those few extra pounds.
Lifestyle design may mean that your transformation happens slower. At the same time, it makes it more profound and deliberate.
If that’s what you’re after, there’s still time to trade your New Year’s resolutions for the practice of lifestyle design.
But where do you start? I suggest the best place to start is… your values.
How to Put Lifestyle Design Into Practice
One of the most popular Medium writers, Niklas Göke, recommends setting a one-word theme for the year instead of goals. Here’s how he describes the power of this practice:
“A theme is a baseline ideal, one that you use to guide your actions and decisions. It isn’t worried about tomorrow, nor does it care what happened yesterday. With a theme, all that matters is what you do today. (…)
A theme doesn’t require perfection. Think of it more as a meditation for your life’s trajectory. There’s no judgment if you lose your way for a while. Just work your way back to your baseline when you can.”
The idea of lifestyle design is based on choosing a theme — or, 1–3 values — that will guide you in 2021. That’s it — “guide” is the word here. There’s no punishment if you sidetrack for a moment. Unlike with resolutions, this doesn’t mean you “failed.”
You can simply come back to your theme any time and pick up where you left off. With the next decision or action you take, you can simply ask yourself: Is this aligned with my values?
If you want to make this practice a little more structured, I have some tips for you. You make it into a little “New Year date” with yourself. Make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee and sit down with a journal (or a piece of paper) where you won’t be disturbed for at least 1–1.5 hours.
Most importantly — enjoy the process! Lifestyle design isn’t so much about perfection as it is about having fun.
The Cycle of Lifestyle Design
I like to think about lifestyle design the way Prakhar Verma described it in this post (where the above graphic comes from). It’s not something you do once and have it set in stone. Rather, it’s an ongoing, iterative cycle you go through as you learn and grow.
The trigger for a lifestyle design practice is what Prakhar calls “The Defining Moment.” For our purposes, this is the beginning of the New Year. We’re now in a symbolic moment of transition when you’re more likely to ask yourself big questions and think about changing your life.
From there, you can take three steps to design your lifestyle for 2021. The fourth step of the cycle — reflection — comes further down the road. As time passes, you’ll evaluate how the ideas you came up with in this exercise are working for you.
Right now, grab your journal — and let’s start designing!
1. Define: Name your values
What qualities do you want to embody in 2021? Is it a single theme, as Niklas Göke recommends? Or do you have more values you want to be guided by?
I recommend choosing no more than 1–3 values or themes. Having too many will make it hard to remember and implement them.
This year, I chose a single theme for myself: Relaxation. I don’t mean it in the “fooling around and doing nothing” kind of way. What relaxation means to me is bringing less tension and more flow and trust to my work, relationships, and everything else.
Make sure the word you choose to describe your value(s) resonates with you. It doesn’t have to make sense to others — but it must feel genuine to you.
2. Explore: Translate values into behaviors
Once you pick your values, think about what it would look like for you to enact them in the most relevant areas of your life.
For example, if you chose freedom and kindness, how would they manifest in your personal and professional life? If you picked motivation, how would that apply to dealing with everyday obstacles?
This step is important to envision what kind of behavior change your values may encourage. In my case, relaxation means I intend to spend less time worrying about tomorrow and more time being present. I also do my best not to rush when I can afford not to.
3. Act: Timebox your values in your schedule
This step is for being practical about enacting your values — at least some of the time. Again, this isn’t about perfection. It’s about taking the first step to invite the change you want to see in your life.
That’s how you start creating a new self-story.
For this, I like to use Nir Eyal’s Timeboxing technique. Timeboxing is about planning time in your schedule to engage in activities that are a direct translation of your values. The way Nir described it:
“Simply put, values are attributes of the person you want to become. So, you have to ask yourself: “How would a person I want to become choose to spend their time?” Then, you timebox your calendar to spend time in those ways. However, you don’t focus on what you “should” achieve in those timeboxed periods.”
This is essential — timeboxing isn’t about the outcomes of your scheduled activities. It’s about engaging in them for a defined period of time without distraction.
For me, this will mean spending some time each workday writing freely. This is what relaxation at work means to me at the moment: being able to create without the pressure to arrive at preconceived outcomes.
Whatever your timeboxed activities will be, make sure they reflect your values. If you consistently reinforce those values with your behavior, you’ll start rewiring your self-story. You’ll change the beliefs you hold about yourself.
This is the causal place from which you design your lifestyle and change at a very deep level.
Personal Change Starts With Defining Your Values
If you only remember one thing from this post, let it be this:
Forcing yourself to change through New Year’s resolutions is like pushing a river backward. It’s unlikely to work as long as you cling to a self-story that isn’t consistent with those resolutions.
Deliberate lifestyle design allows you to change that story. Because it starts with defining your values, it makes you reflect on what kind of person you want to become.
From there, it’s easier to make meaningful changes in your life.
Lifestyle design isn’t about how many times you “fail.” It breaks the negative cycle of beating yourself up for not following through on your resolutions. Instead, it invites a positive reinforcement of your values — the “attributes of the person you want to become.”
If you reinforce them often enough with your timeboxed behaviors, your self-story will change.
That’s when real transformation begins.
At Big Self School we know stress builds up and leads to physical symptoms, mental health disorders, and burnout. It can be hard to pinpoint why it’s happening. Take our free stress test and discover just how stressed you are.