Start With the Family You Want to Be

“Seems like we should just take 2022 one day at a time,” my son remarked when we gathered to do some New Year’s family rituals

My first thought was, “Wow, a ten year old committed to staying in the present? What a master of mindfulness!” I quickly realized as I looked at his face that his comment was not the result of mindfulness. Instead this was a kid who learned throughout COVID times that setting big expectations too often led to big disappointment. 

So here we go, carefully tiptoeing our hearts and expectations into 2022. 

To be clear, the last thing we want to do in this new year is to squash big ideas and expansive vision. Now, as ever, we need to reimagine fractured systems and reinvent ways of caring for and about each other. This is true in our small family systems all the way up to our global systems. 

But the reality is that whether you are creating big changes or just making good on a personal resolution, walking big ideas back into our lives is essential. In other words, even big transformations are often built “one day at a time.” 

Kids walking on a path taking new habits one step at a time

Small Changes Add Up

We’ve written before about the advantage of making small habit changes instead of committing to lofty but unrooted resolutions. Research on behavior change reinforces the idea that even very small habit changes can lead to powerful outcomes. 

In a simple example, if you want to start running, researcher Christine Carter suggests starting a “better-than-nothing habit.” This could include simply waking up, putting on running shoes, and running for just one minute. This might fall woefully short of an ultimate goal, but once we start this more doable habit we are far more likely to stick with it. Over time we can then more easily build up this routine with more distance or a faster run.

James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits” shares similar insights and reminds us that while resolutions and goal setting often focus on grandeur and intensity, the key to lasting change is actually much smaller but more consistent steps. 

Every Day We Create a Little Evidence of Who We Are

Small habit changes can also help us get more specific about the why and for what purpose of our larger goals. For example, parents often reach out to us in frustration and share that they want to “reduce screen time.” While there might be reasons for some families to reduce overall screen time, there are enormous benefits to focusing on changing one or two key digital habits instead. If the ultimate benefit of reducing screen time is to connect more as a family, creating a new habit of dropping phones in a basket right before dinner can be transformational even if overall screen time doesn’t change.

We have to be careful with new habits though. As habits expert James Clear explains, they can be quite fragile if they don’t align with who we believe ourselves to be.  

According to Clear, most of us start out by setting a big outcome goal like “reducing screen time.” Then some drill down to shifting habits and routines to help us get there. Those are process goals.  But one of the most powerful ways to initiate and sustain change is actually to think about the person or family we wish to become, by setting a ‘who we are’, or identity goal. 

Identity goals are related to the assumptions, values, and beliefs we have about ourselves. For example, an identity goal might be “I want to become the kind of person who connects with my family every day.”

According to the evidence, rather than starting with big outcome goals or tinkering with habits right away, we would be better off first reflecting on the kind of person or family we want to become. Then we can prove it to ourselves with little actions every day. 

What Kind of Family Do We Want to Be?

Let’s be clear, creating identity goals is not about finding yet another yardstick to measure our shortcomings or creating an ideal of the “perfect” parent or family. Instead it is an organizing force that can help us initiate and sustain more doable habits in the inevitable mess of our daily lives. 

Setting a rigid outcome goal such as “reducing screen time by 60 minutes every single day” can lead to shame when we miss the mark or increase conflict as we track and lament every minute on a screen. In contrast, setting an identity goal of, “We want to be the kind of family that connects with each other every day,” can help us work towards consistency and creativity instead of intensity or perfection. It might also help us create new tiny habits that matter a great deal. For example, in addition putting phones away at dinner we might start to prioritize enjoying our kid’s favorite YouTuber together. 

Sometimes these little routines will feel just right! Most of the time they will feel a lot more wobbly and far-from-perfect. But when we miss dinner or argue about screen time, we are more likely to look for ways to re-set, reconnect or repair. Because it is who we are. 

Each of us has things that we would like to see change, grow, or transform right now. These times also demand that we are extra gentle with ourselves, accept imperfections, and plan to pivot. As my oldest shared on New Year’s Eve, it is probably best to take all of it one day at a time. 

So as we step into each day of this uncertain 2022, consider creating some identity goals around who you want to continue to become. Some of these will be unique to you and your family system. Others, we likely have in common. For example, “We want to be a person/family/community that can do hard things together.” 

Now let’s look for ways to create a little evidence each day of who we want to be.