Lurking beneath every well-intentioned New Year’s resolution is an unacknowledged truth: Most of us are lazy slobs at heart, and no amount of self-improvement planning is going to change that fact. Maybe you can force yourself to make it to the gym every day — that’s certainly a victory in itself, but it’s distinctly different from wanting to go to the gym every day. More often than not, keeping a resolution isn’t a question of transforming yourself into someone who desires better, healthier habits. It’s a question of forcing yourself to pretend like you are.
So why not make it a little easier to fake it? In a recent post on strategies for sticking to New Year’s resolutions, Mental Floss highlighted a piece of advice from writer Shawn Achor. In his book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Achor described the importance of minimizing what he calls “activation energy,” or the amount of effort it takes to get from doing nothing to doing whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. For example, when he decided to learn guitar, he wrote:
I had kept my guitar tucked away in the closet, out of sight and out of reach. It wasn’t far out of the way, of course (my apartment isn’t that big), but just those 20 seconds of extra effort it took to walk to the closet and pull out the guitar had proved to be a major deterrent …
Clearly, it was time for another experiment. I took the guitar out of the closet, bought a $2 guitar stand, and set it up in the middle of my living room. Nothing had changed except that now instead of being 20 seconds away, the guitar was in immediate reach. Three weeks later, I looked up at a habit grid with 21 proud check marks.
The success of his new strategy led Achor to develop something called the 20-second rule. “Lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit,” he wrote. It’s a little hokey — and Achor himself acknowledges that there’s no one universal magic number for everyone, or every habit — but the underlying idea makes sense: To keep a resolution, make things as easy as humanly possible for your lazy self.
As my colleague Drake Baer has written at Fast Company, productivity experts even have another name for it: “designing for laziness.” It’s a strategy that can be used to deter habits as well as encourage them: As long as you’re putting the healthy snacks within easy reach, for instance, you might as well move the junk food to a high shelf somewhere. Resolutions may be a path towards self-betterment, but they’re easiest to keep when you build them around an honest acknowledgement of your own unconquerable flaws.