“Making the Bed” – A Guide to Fulfilling Your New Year’s Resolutions

A New Year is upon us. For the next few weeks, the gyms will be packed, the morning joggers come out, and everyone’s clothes will look much more pressed and fit. Every phone conversation starts with “Happy New Year!”, and the energy and excitement of a new beginning carries us through the workday. We are amazed at our own motivation levels.  

By the third week, however, we see the gym traffic calming down. The “Happy New Years!” are limited to passing acquaintances. Our morning coffee addiction is back in full force, and you might find yourself already staring at your resolutions list, trying to remember just what it was you wanted to accomplish in 2017….  

So what happened?  

Before you officially revert to the old lifestyle – stop to consider: You might simply be taking on too many changes at once.  

According to Charles Duhig, investigative reporter for the New York Times and author of the “Power of Habit”, trying to change multiple behaviors simultaneously requires more motivation, more willpower, and therefore a greater chance of failure. Loading yourself up with too many goals, although well-intentioned, is like trying to maneuver a barge.  

The key to realistic change, says Duhig, is to streamline. Instead of overwhelming yourself with resolutions, we need to identify and focus on a few “keystone” habits that have the power to start a chain reaction in ourselves.  

For example, studies show that families who eat dinner together statistically raise children with more self-confidence, greater emotional control and better grades. Not that eating together by itself has any bearing on these other behaviors, but academics theorize that this simple daily action promotes a greater sense of security and family connectedness in young children, which helps open the mind for other habits to grab hold.  

Exercise, of course, is the ultimate keystone habit, and Richard Branson’s key to increased productivity. People who work out regularly automatically tend to eat better, sleep better and become more productive at the office, generally feeling more positive about themselves. Interestingly, study participants who set specific exercise goals like “I will work out for 20 minutes per day” fare less well than their peers in sticking to a new exercise program, who set general (and more attainable) parameters such as “I will do sit-ups and pushups every day”, without specifying an actual number. Setting the bar too high sets up parameters for failure.  

Duhig explains that the key to maintaining keystone habits is to create an environment of consistent reinforcement, in the form of “small wins”. With small and consistent reinforcement, we trick ourselves into feeling only positive feelings. The change becomes contagious as these baby steps compound within ourselves, and we start to see the results gradually form into a habit.  

So what is the easiest keystone habit of all (and also a great brain hacker)? Surprisingly enough, making the bed. Studies show that this simple daily task leads to better budget discipline, work productivity and a greater sense of well-being. Literally thirty seconds of effort that you can even shortcut on a busy morning by pulling the comforter up and over the sheets.  

Conversely, an unmade bed creates an atmosphere more accepting of disorder…. and nothing breeds disorder like more disorder.  

Malcolm Gladwell introduced this concept in The Tipping Point, with the “Broken Window Theory” of crime epidemics. Crime in this theory is also viewed as contagious, and much more likely to be committed in an environment where a state of disorder already exists.  

“If the neighborhood cannot keep a bothersome panhandler from annoying passersby, the thief may reason, it is even less likely to call the police to identify a potential mugger or to interfere if the mugging actually takes place.”  

Rudy Guiliani tapped into this theory as mayor of New York City, where amidst an incredibly high violent crime rate and growing protests from his constituents, he diverted city funds to focus on programs for simply reducing graffiti. Though other factors were assuredly at work here, after a short time the streets became cleaner, and surprisingly the crime rates began to drop.  

Small changes to our environment, in other words, can have major consequences. Although this is nothing new to anyone who has seen or read up on the “Butterfly Effect”, this has tremendous implications when applied to a goal that we set for ourselves.  

So start by thinking small. Instead of setting a goal to run 3 miles per day, simply walk to the end of the block and back after dinner. Do ten sit-ups, instead of 100, before bed. Complement just one person at work. Keep the resolution simple enough, and you can’t help but to do it.  

Before long, the feeling of accomplishment will grow, the small wins will stack up, and your goals will also increase with time. Once the habit is in place, the bar can slowly be raised. Like boiling a pot of water, the initial energy is drawn out and takes a while to kick in, but once that water boils, it is very easy to keep it bubbling.  

So when you get up tomorrow morning, tear up that long list of resolutions, and just set one small goal for yourself. Try tucking in those sheets before you go to work.  

That may be all the resolution you need.