There is a reason that most New Year’s resolutions fail. Behavioral change is hard. In fact, the book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be describes it this way: “Adult behavioral change is the most difficult thing for sentient human beings to accomplish.” Yet every January, like clockwork, we tell ourselves that this year will be different. This is the year we will lose weight, stop procrastinating, finish that project, fill in the blank. Yet inevitably our motivation lags and we’re back to where we started.
So what can we do to set ourselves up for success?
I believe that simplifying and adopting a minimalist lifestyle can help us develop and maintain healthy habits. This is because the mindset shift that occurs when we remove that which does not serve us supports behavioral change in other areas. Here’s how:
1. Removing what doesn’t matter gives us clarity about what does.
James Clear, one of my favorite writers about habits, talks about the link between habits and our identity. He said in a recent podcast interview, “Your habits are how you embody a particular identity…The more you act in a particular way…the more you reinforce being a certain type of person.”
For example, if I tell myself that I am a person who moves my body every day, it becomes part of who I am, and I become intentional about living it out. It is non-negotiable, because we don’t like to act in a way that goes against who we say we are (a form of cognitive dissonance). Because minimalists have clarity around their values, and therefore the identity that supports their values, they can better maintain identity-based habits.
Identity-based habits (I am a person who moves every day) are more successful than outcome-based habits (I will lose 10 pounds) because, as Clear explains in his book Atomic Habits, “True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.”
2. Minimalism allows you to focus on the “why” behind your decisions.
Minimalism allows you to slow down and inquire mindfully before making a decision, whether it’s purchasing an item or adding a commitment to your calendar. You are constantly asking whether an action is aligned with your values, your purpose, and your “why.”
This inquiry is very helpful when it comes to habits. In some cases, we can remove the trigger (or what Charles Duhigg calls the “cue”), like unsubscribing from retail e-mails that trigger us to buy things we don’t need. But even when we can’t change the cue, minimalism helps us to take that important pause between stimulus and response to understand why we’re doing something in the first place. We then have the opportunity to choose a healthier response.
3. Simplifying reduces decision fatigue and choice overload.
I see decision fatigue and choice overload as two sides as the same coin. If you are presented with a dizzying number of choices (i.e. options), then decisions are more difficult. The more decisions you are forced to make, the more your energy and focus are drained. As the day wears on, it becomes harder to make quality decisions and easier to engage in unhealthy behaviors.
Let’s use your closet as an example. Supposedly we make 35,000 decisions a day, and one of the first ones is what we should wear. If you have a closet stuffed with clothes, you are overloaded with choice. It takes far more time and energy to pick something to wear than someone with a capsule wardrobe. By the end of the day, it is more likely that you experience decision fatigue and decide to skip your evening workout for your favorite Netflix show. Streamlining and simplifying the choices in our environment helps us keep our focus and maintain our healthy habits.
4. Removing excess possessions allows you to keep the things that support your healthy habits within reach.
During the decluttering process, many minimalists advocate keeping flat surfaces and floors clear of unnecessary items since visual clutter can increase cortisol levels. Habits research, however, shows that priming your environment can help reduce friction between you and a desired habit, therefore making behavioral change easier. As Leo Babauta from Zen Habits says, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.”
The key is to be intentional about how you do this. When you own only the things that you use, love, and reflect the person you want to become, you can be strategic about how you prime your environment for habit success. Every night before I go to sleep, I put my workout clothes on the floor of our bathroom. It’s one less thing that I have to do in the morning and one less excuse why I can’t work out. If you want to make a smoothie every morning for breakfast, put the blender and your protein powder on the counter the night before. It’s not visual clutter if it helps you maintain a healthy habit.
5. Minimalists often create artificial boundaries and deadlines to help them enjoy more space in their homes and the time and energy to do what is most important.
If the path of least resistance is the key to developing and maintaining healthy habits, increasing friction is the key to stopping unhealthy habits and replacing them with healthier ones. This can mean increasing the steps required to do something that was previously easy or convenient. As Clear explains, “For many of us, a little bit of friction can be the difference between sticking with a good habit or sliding into a bad one.”
Many minimalists advocate artificial boundaries and arbitrary deadlines as a form of friction. A few examples:
– Courtney Carver’s Project 333 and The Minimalists’ “packing party” involve choosing a limited number of items, boxing up the rest (a form of artificial boundaries) and then setting a date to open the box again or using the items only as needed (arbitrary deadlines).
– In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport recommends a 30-day digital declutter process, where you take a break from “optional technologies” and then slowly reintroduce them mindfully. For me, this has meant removing triggering social media apps from my phone and only using them on my laptop. It’s just enough friction to keep me from mindlessly scrolling.
If you started off the new year strong but are worried about sliding back into unhealthy habits, minimalism can help you gain clarity on your identity, engage in behaviors mindfully, maintain your energy and focus, and prime your environment for success.
About the Author: Emily McDermott is a wife, mother, and simplicity seeker, chronicling her journey at Simple by Emmy. She loves to dance, write poetry, and spend time with her husband and two young sons.