As if deciding what to resolve isn’t enough of a challenge, you are also tasked with making a plan to help you keep your New Year’s resolutions. It’s no wonder why so many people give up by mid-January!
Need a little help? Don’t go it alone—take these tips from the gurus of habit formation to help you make your resolution stick for the whole year (and beyond).
What Are Habits?
Habit formation is the process by which new behaviours become automatic. Behavioural patterns that you repeat frequently form strong neural pathways. Think back to when you first learned to drive a car; when you began, you had to focus attentively to each part of the process: the pedals, the mirrors, how far to turn the steering wheels, and how close you were to traffic around you. After some time, you became able to drive without needing to focus your attention—driving became a habit.
The good news: Through repetition, it's possible to form and maintain new habits in much the same way driving a car becomes habituated. Habit expert Charles Duhigg explains that habits cannot be eradicated but instead they need to be replaced with new habits. His method is to use a cue-routine-reward. Every action you have follows this pattern. Traditional wisdom describes this as the circle of karma (action), samskara (memory), and vasana (desire).
Here’s an example. Eating fresh-baked cookies creates a memory for me. It’s sweet and comforting, and perhaps it reminds me of childhood. When I feel out of sorts or miss my family, I remember that I can get this from cookies. The desire for some cookies acts as temporary relief from stress or fatigue, so I choose the action of eating cookies again. In order to successfully kick the cookie habit, it could be replaced by a quick phone call to mom.
How can you shake up your patterns and insert a different routine or action?
Learn What Type of Habit Formation Works Best for Your Resolution
Once you have noticed your pattern or decided on a new habit to form, you need to make a plan that will work consistently until that new routine becomes a habit. Some people edge their way into a resolution where others jump in fully from day one. Neither method is better but by matching a method with your goal, you will help yourself stick to it. Try these methods:
- Pairing: This refers to pairing a new habit with an old one. For example, if you want to oil pull every morning you might put the oil on a bathroom shelf so you do the oil pulling while showering.
- Moderation: Sometimes setting a goal to moderate a behavior feels more attainable. An example would be to introduce meatless weekdays rather than a full-time vegan diet.
- Abstain: For some habits, choosing to abstain entirely makes it easier. If you want to cut out sugar, choosing to “eat less sugar” is not measureable or easy to track. This makes a habit harder to form. With a goal of total abstinence, it’s easy to see if you are successful.
- Scheduling: Set a reminder on your phone that tells you when and where. This means your resolution is a priority; it’s in your calendar. What you schedule tends to get done.
- Make it Easy: The simpler you make it, the better. If you want to work out, join the most convenient gym. If it is close to work or home, you are more likely to get there than if you have to drive across town. If you want to cut out carbs, don’t have carbs in the house.
- Don’t Let Perfect Keep You from the Perfectly Good: Sometimes the frustration of not being 100 percent successful may keep you from continuing. Don’t beat yourself up if you skip a day or break your diet. Recognize that a little of something good is better than none at all.
Consider What Type of Habit Former You Are
Gretchen Rubin, an author who studied habit formation extensively prior to launching her book, Better Than Before, has divided habit formation personalities into four types (or tendencies as she calls them). (Take her quiz to learn yours.)
- Questioners require research. They’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense. One of the challenges of being a questioner is that you can get stuck in the analysis paralysis stage of habit forming; you never begin because you can’t decide if and how to proceed. Your motto should be Just do It!
- Upholders are equally strong at creating and sticking to habits that are both intrinsically and externally motivated. They can lose 5 lbs. with ease if their doctor tells them to. If they decide they want to meditate every morning, they just do it. What upholders need to remember is that others don’t form habits with the same ability they do. Upholders can be rigid.
- Obligers are great if they have external accountability but lack discipline to hold themselves accountable intrinsically. They often put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own and they need to use accountability when trying to stick to a resolution.
- Rebels, not surprisingly, don’t like to be contained (even by rules they make for themselves). If you are a rebel you resist all expectations, outer and inner alike, and do best when resolutions aren’t worded rigidly.
Focus on What You Want
Finally, make sure your resolution is moving you toward something you want and not away from something you don’t want. Although these two are very similar, most people are more successful at getting something than they are at giving something up.
According to neuroscientist and mindset coach Shonté Jovan Taylor, “negative habits must be replaced by desirable habits for them to lose their power over your mind. Thus, negative mental pathways are no longer fuelled and begin to lose their neural connections.” Phrase your resolution using language that uses positive words. Instead of saying, “Stop wasting time on social media” try saying, “Enjoy social media for 5 minutes three times a day.” Taylor also says that “strong emotions help to establish mental habits quickly and strongly because habit formation and the emotional circuitry are highly linked.” Knowing that your emotional state affects your success at keeping your resolution will remind you to stay positive, to celebrate the little milestones along the way, and to keep a resilient mindset.