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Over the next few weeks, we’ll be inundated with TV news segments, magazine articles, and (yes) blog posts about New Year’s Resolutions. Usually, these resolutions take a negative approach: break your smoking habit, stop eating sweets, quit being so lazy and unmotivated and get to the gym already.

Ugh. Usually, “resolutions” are just an excuse to really go nuts over the holidays. With winter setting in, the long nights and lousy weather get us down. So we eat more, smoke more, and indulge in all our other vices to compensate. Personally, I’ve been drinking much more coffee than I normally do. Feeling helpless, we promise ourselves that, as of next year, we’ll do better. This rationalization gives us full license to cut loose. And it’s a sensible strategy: if we really can’t stop ourselves from doing what we shouldn’t be doing, why compound feeling crappy with feeling guilty, too?

Don’t Musterbate

Albert Ellis, father of cognitive behavioral psychology, coined the term “musterbation” to refer to our tendency to think things “must” occur or “must” be done. The cognitive behavioral model in psychology steers patients away from negative goals. Language can be a really powerful tool (and obstacle) to changing your behavior. Telling yourself “I have to go to the gym in the morning” is a great way to sleep until 10 am and then have a slice of pizza for breakfast. “Must,” “should,” and other imperative terms are a clear signal to your brain that you don’t really want to do whatever it is that you’re “supposed” to do, and it resists appropriately.

How about the opposite tack? “It would be great if I went to the gym in the morning. I feel pretty good once I’m warmed up and on the treadmill, and afterwards I get that warm glow. I’ll hit the steam room, too. That would be really terrific. If I don’t go, it’s not the end of the world, but if I did, I’d really enjoy it. In fact, if I went three times this week, I could see treating myself to a massage on Friday after work.” It seems artificial, but by constantly talking to yourself this way (not out loud, of course) you can effect a big difference in how your body responds to your conscious desires.

Make Your Brain Your Ally

You know how some mornings you wake up and you just don’t feel the oomph you need to get rolling? Everything takes just a little bit longer, you can’t quite get your socks on while standing up, etc.? Other mornings you feel sharp, the socks go on in one smooth motion while you balance on each leg. That’s the difference your brain can make if it’s properly engaged. Going to the gym or doing any other “unpleasant” task can be fun or torture based on your attitude. And you can create your own attitude through language.

So instead of trying to “break” bad habits this January, start building new, better habits right now in December. Get a head start, so when your friends wake up bleary-eyed in the afternoon on January 2nd and close the blinds to block out the sun’s harsh glare, they’ll see you wave as you cheerfully jog past their window, feeling terrific.

Most importantly, stop using the word “habit.” It’s a nasty, terrible word and we all hate it. Fun, positive activities that make you feel good and improve your life should be called sunnies. OK, I just made that up, but I think that’s a better one. If you don’t like it, come up with your own term. As long as you don’t use that awful H-word.

Five Great Habits Sunnies For New Year’s Today:

Design Tomorrow. Every single productivity system out there encourages one form or another of regular planning for the future. Yuck. I hate the idea of picturing myself 5 years down the road. Way too many variables; just thinking about it makes my head shut down. Like retirement planning. But the fact is, successful goal-setting is demonstrably effective. So how to get around the roadblock? Look at living as an act of architecture. Picture a perfect day five years from now. What would your morning look like? What job do you head off to? Are you freelancing, in a corner office, retired early? Do you have a wife, a kid, many kids? Go nuts. It’s a wish fulfillment scenario. Be as extravagant as you like.

That’s your Blueprint. Write it down in simple, clear language. Here’s where your sunny comes in. Every week, check in with yourself. How are things going? You don’t have to be making great strides toward each of your long-term goals, but are you at least pointed in the right direction for each one?

Sure, do your GTD weekly review at the same time, but don’t lose sight of the Blueprint because that isn’t about what your job needs or your client needs, it’s about what you want. Is it a career that requires grad school? If you can’t afford to go to grad school right now, are there preparatory classes you might take at a continuing education program? An after-work internship you might do? Give yourself an hour a week to spend as the subcontractor of your future, making sure your Blueprint is being followed. Why would you ever consider giving more to your job than you do to yourself?

Polish. The sunny of cleaning up regularly can be tricky to adopt. Most of us only really clean right before we have guests over.

Instead of thinking of cleaning as a chore, focus on aesthetics. Personally, I like shiny countertops, a clean desk, a pristine monitor, and so on. And I enjoy polishing things.l So I focus on the polish. But to do a thorough polish of my desk with a little Old English once a week, I need to be able to get to the surface. So I spend 5 minutes a day keeping my desk clean in order to do what I want. I do the dishes daily because I want to be able to polish the countertops. Try to put the parts of cleaning you like behind the parts you don’t in order to make sure the latter get done regularly (which makes doing them so much less aggravating).

Write your memoirs. OK, writing a diary is torture for a lot of people. Instead, write your memoirs. After all, future historians are going to want to know how you accomplished what you did, how you overcame obstacles, and so on. Share your wisdom, as Marcus Aurelius did in his Meditations. Instead of focusing on the dreary tasks you accomplished at the office or an awkward conversation you had, use your memoirs to share your insights about life, love, work, and so on. Pass your wisdom on, even if the only person who ever reads your memoirs is you. Sadly, we often forget our own best thoughts.

Walk. This is a no-brainer. Buy a pedometer, strap that sucker on, and make sure you hit 10,000 steps a day. Why a pedometer? Because it works, that’s why! Gosh, this is a simple sunny. Walking is fun, it feels great, it’s really good for you, and with a pedometer you can track your daily steps in Excel and make colorful charts, which is fun for us geeks.

Get a pet. Or just a plant. A pet is a great way to build positive habits. My dog gets me out the door regularly for walks. Her energy is infectious. If a dog isn’t practical for you, what about something with more modest requirements, like a cat, hamster, or fish? If pets are an impossibility, consider a plant. The simple act of caring for a large houseplant can be therapeutic. They liven up a space, and they also clean the air. Check this list of approved plants for NASA missions: they’re proven to be good at scrubbing out impurities, in addition to generating brain-boosting oxygen for your space.

7 Comments

  • Jacob Cass

    gravatarDec 4, 2007
    10:43 pm

    I like that Musterbate theory. I havn’t even thought about my new year resolution yet. Maybe go to the gym :)

    Do you apply these theories to your life?

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 5, 2007
    5:52 am

    I try. It’s an ongoing process. My main goal is to think positively about change, adding in good behaviors instead of trying to subtract bad ones.

  • Nicki Lock

    gravatarDec 5, 2007
    11:20 am

    I loved this post. My favorite line: “Why would you ever consider giving more to your job than you do to yourself?”

    Thanks for giving me something great to read again and again and also to serve as motivation.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 5, 2007
    5:14 pm

    Nicki–glad you found it helpful. I have to keep telling myself the same thing.

  • Charles Wilson

    gravatarDec 5, 2007
    8:13 pm

    Musterbate theory

    This is something new for me. And I do see some of that in me. The brain sometimes act like a rebel.

  • Jason White

    gravatarDec 6, 2007
    5:35 am

    The whole negative/positive self talk is quite a valuable lesson in understanding the mechanics of motivation.

    I have always referred to it as the movement towards or the movement away from something.

    Others refer to it as Fear and Love. However you look at it it is far easier to move towards something than to avoid something. The avoidance (like you said lends the thing power).

    However there is another kernel or seed that exists or needs to exist even earlier than the movement towards…

    The image of desire. As a trainer (and podcaster) I have been speaking to my clients and listeners about this image for as long as I can remember. A crystal clear image of the you you would like to be held in the mind’s eye will direct the actions of the person inexorably towards that image.

    It is in fact happening right now and the clearer that image is the faster a person is drawn. Changing the image ultimately changes the “choices” we make in the real world so that we are inline with the fulfillment of that image.

    To use your gym example I don’t even think about whether or not I am going to the gym today or tomorrow or any of that, it is simply the thing that I am doing to become the thing that I see, as natural and as necessary as breathing.

    Cool post.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarDec 6, 2007
    7:33 am

    Thanks, Jason. I need to get the hang of that “exercise being as natural as breathing” thing.