New Year resolutions are as much a part of the holiday season as baubles, gifts and tinsel and millions of us will soon be noting down our promises for the upcoming year. According to a study by the University of Scranton, 45% of Americans made resolutions last year yet only 8% were successful in achieving their resolution. So why is it that so few people manage to commit to their resolution?
Well, often it’s due to the unrealistic expectations people place on themselves. Don’t make your resolution a revolution: it won’t work. It’s sometimes easy to get carried away when making our new year plans as we tend to focus on all our flaws and promise ourselves that next year will be different. Our negative brain bias forces us to remember the more negative aspects of our lives and looks, and so we swear to make changes- more exercise, less eating, more gratitude, less spending, more productive, less stress. And this is a good thing…when done rationally. When we make resolution after resolution with grand, sweeping claims to change, we are setting ourselves up for failure as there are too many demands and too much pressure. We are creatures of habit- but old habits. Once a habit is embedded and becomes part of our daily rituals, it’s usually there to stay- whether we like it or not. But getting to the point where a new behaviour becomes automatic is quite easy if we go about it the right way.
Less is more
Stanford Professor BJ Fogg’s expertise lies in creating systems to change human behaviour, or as he calls it, “Behaviour Design.” For over 20 years, he has studied human behaviour and on his site tinyhabits.com he states that throughout his research, he has found the following:
Only 3 things will change behaviour in the long term:
- Have an epiphany
- Change your environment (what surrounds you)
- Take baby steps
Now, as far as I’m aware, an epiphany isn’t always available. But what is more promising is that the other two factors are completely in our control and are most successful for forging new routines. Fogg’s ‘TinyHabits’ method and online program helps people ‘tap the power of environment and baby steps’ by asking participants to follow 3 easy steps when making a new habit:
- Make it tiny- simplify! Rather than trying to commit to doing 100 push ups a day, just commit to 1 or even 3 if you like living dangerously.
- Connect it to something you’re already doing. Setting an alarm or writing copious amounts of post-it notes as a reminder to perform your new habit can be quite laborious, and let’s face it, keeping up with setting an alarm is a habit in itself. Fogg’s research indicates that anchoring a new habit to a pre-existing routine is central to success. Some habits we have are pretty ingrained and we tend to do them on autopilot with very little effort or motivation, so it makes sense to utilise these rituals as a trigger. Fogg advises that the best way to start a new behaviour is to ‘put it *after* some act that is a solid habit for you, like brushing teeth or eating lunch.’ So if for example you want to practice more gratitude in the evening, focus your intention by saying “After my head hits the pillow, I will think of 1 reason to be be grateful” or if your resolution is to show more affection for your children, then commit to a ritual like, “After my son walks through the door, I will hug him for 10 seconds”.
- Celebrate it! In his fascinating Ted Talk, BJ Fogg asks his audience to practice a tiny habit of his choosing: flossing one tooth. The, he tells his audience to acknowledge their success by performing a little victory dance or something that reinforces their ‘awesomeness’, like a Judd Nelson style ‘fist in the air’ or shouting out “Bingo!”. By rewarding our effort and success in completing our new habit, we are much more likely to repeat it in the future.
Process over Product
Planning and goal setting is also essential. But how we view our goals can make the difference between success and failure. How many of us have hoped to start a new habit by focussing on the desired outcome: a slimmer waistline, less anxiety, more money. It seems obvious that in order to motivate us to do something we should focus on the finish line, right? Well, no. In a study by the University of California, researchers found that people who visualized the process of reaching their goals rather than just the end product were much more likely to stay motivated.
Ok, so we know how to form a habit and what will help us stay motivated but what if we start to stray? Once the excitement of starting something new has worn off, how do we stay focused and committed to our cause? Research into implementation intentions suggests that using an ‘if…then’ prompt can also make a habit more ‘sticky’, especially when anchored to a pre-existing ritual. So rather than telling ourselves, “I’m going to write in my gratitude journal every night’ change it to, “If it is bedtime, then I will write 3 things into my gratitude journal’. This can also be used when we are faced with obstacles, such as being too tired or too busy. So again, we can try to fortify our commitment by proposing solutions to any barriers that we regularly put up and tell ourselves, “If I am too busy to write in my gratitude journal, then I will think of 3 things after I get into bed.”
Habits are hard, especially when we already have so many demands placed on us. Time is of the essence and energy is depleted beyond repair. But new healthy habits will give us more time or energy or money if we are able to stick and commit.
5 steps to stick and commit:
- Make your habit simple.
- Anchor it *after* a pre-existing ritual.
- Visualise the process not just the outcome.
- Use ‘If…then’ to stay on track.
Merry Christmas and ‘Habit’ New Year!