A practical guide to forming and keeping good ones
Well happy new year to you! What better time to hit that reset button than at the very start of what we generally accept as the beginning of another lump of 365 (and sometimes 366) days?
While some of us have resolutions on deck that we're planning on achieving this year, others (like myself) like to take things day by day.
Whatever your style, having goals is really the goal here so let's discuss one that I find particularly important. Something that transcends pretty much all resolutions or plans.
Scientists who study the subject of habit formation note that many people go about attempting to create healthy habits the wrong way. That being the making of bold resolutions while lacking the basic steps needed to set themselves up for the desired success.
I admit, this is mainly the reason why I don’t make resolutions for the new year.
Resolutions quickly become empty words unless they are accompanied by actions, have a specific purpose and are done for the right reasons. Frankly, I often lack the time to do the groundwork, and I guess I just haven’t come across a resolution yet that would be life-altering enough for me to do so.
But let’s say you found one or two that you believe can make a significant, positive impact in your life.
First of all – congratulations! That’s a great sign for how much you care about yourself and even those around you.
And if that is you, read on my determined friend.
In the name of satisfying our innermost desires to have things just be easy, here's some irony:
The path to 'easy' is actually really difficult. Yup, lined with landmines and guarded by enemies who constantly plot your downfall and revel at every small failure.
Perhaps that was a bit too dramatic, but man, it sure can feel like that sometimes when you’re trying to establish a foundation for something good in your life.
If you’ve ever tried making even a small change for the better, you will have learned that in order to turn something that's hard now into something that comes easily later, the tough work has to be done first.
There are no real alternatives to this I'm afraid.
Drinking alcohol, smoking, overindulging in rich foods - all super easy habits to get into. The simple reason behind this is that these substances are basically 'brain candy'. They help release dopamine and other types of pleasure chemicals in the body that provide us with those toe-curling good feelings.
You are immediately rewarded for your actions by your brain.
When it comes to doing the things that are beneficial to us like exercise, healthy eating, increased focus, mindfulness, etc. things become a lot more challenging. The reward is not instant.
However, after some time and practice, all the good habits we try to develop will become the types of activities that will stimulate your brain's reward system in much the same way that the not-so-great do.
The road from here to there
Sticking to a resolution or a decision to make a positive change can be as simple as saying that this is what you want and then pursuing it with the kind of zeal that would make a charging bull blush.
On the flipside, how many times have you witnessed other people make these determined resolutions only for them to fizzle out long before the snow on the ground melts?
Like everything else that represents a profound change, it Is earmarked for failure if we don’t do this one crucial thing: plan.
I read this somewhere a long time ago and it stuck with me. I don’t remember the exact words or even the right order, but the idea is something like this:
“If you are not planning, you are planning to fail”.
Harsh. And let me tell you – it’s been something I wanted to get around many times before only to find that whoever said those words was irritatingly right.
And so, let’s plan for your success.
Putting it all together
Establishing new, healthy habits is a challenging endeavor. The first thing I’d suggest is to make sure that it’s definitely something you want. Not because someone else wants it for you or you believe you ‘should’ do it. The seed that is planted here has to be completely genuine. Once this is established, the rest an be summed up into 5 components.
1. Start small
Say you resolve to start to exercise more. Taking a short walk on a regular basis is a solid way to start this. My own journey began with this very same action. I set my alarm slightly earlier in the morning to enable me to get a morning walk in before anything else transpired. That tiny action eventually grew to a life-changing, total transformation.
If you want to eat healthier, maybe add a small bowl of raw vegetables that you can eat every day. That could lead to better eating habits down the road. The key takeaway here is: small = manageable.
2. Make it daily
According to recent studies out of the UK, a new habit takes on average around 70 days to stick. Yes, that's a long time, but think of it this way: outside of an addictive substance (nicotine, alcohol), your current habits took a long time to form as well. The good news is that this process can be sped up by remaining consistent. Using exercise as the example again (go figure), this would mean not jumping head-first into 6 days of pumping iron at the gym for someone who's never really exercised before. It could however mean doing a brisk walk or some yoga (or both). Once that starts to feel like a natural part of the day, "graduate" on to more challenging forms of exercise. Perhaps jogging, running, and yes, starting to lift weights.
3. Make it easy
Believe it or not, there is an entire field dedicated to researching habits. Some experts in this field from the University of Southern California have found that the simple act of clearing away some "noise" can enable you to develop and stick to a desired habit much easier and much faster.
How? As much as this is within your control, clear away any obstacles that may stand between you and your desired habit. For example, pack a gym bag in the evening and leave it at the door for you for the next morning to make it easy for you to go to the gym. One of the researchers actually started sleeping in their running clothes to make it easier for them to roll out of bed in the morning and go for a run. That may sound a bit extreme, but you get the idea - be your own enabler for good.
4. Tie the new habit to an established one
The habit experts also tell us that what works really well is to “stack” habits. That is, build a new habit on top of an established one. For example, I started meditating by attaching this desired habit to my morning routine of sitting down on the couch with a cup of coffee and reading the news online. Depending on the practicality of your desired new habit, there are many opportunities throughout a given day where we creatures of habit can start stacking away. From brushing our teeth in the morning to sitting down to watch TV in the evening. The day is literally full of possibilities.
5. Reward yourself
Our brains operate on a reward system so it would stand to reason that when you have performed a new habit or taken a step towards establishing it, you give yourself a proper reward. Now when we think of ‘rewards’ these don’t have to be material. Sometimes the only action that a reward requires is the result of the habit itself (using exercise again, the reward is better health, improved physique and a more positive outlook), but these take longer to come to fruition.
A more immediate reward for example could be watching your favorite show while working out at home, or as in my meditation example, after completing the desired task, pour yourself another hot coffee. Small pleasures tied in to the desired new habit go a long way in getting our minds to connect positively to what we’re trying to do.
The bottom line
And there you have it. A real, usable 5-step plan on making a new year’s resolution habit stick. As I’m sure you’ve heard over and over again, keeping things simple, small and manageable is the way to go.
This isn’t always easy because we usually want positive changes to have happened yesterday, but patience is a definite requirement if you don’t want yet another resolution to end up in the dustbin.
Good things can come to those who wait, but I’d like to take it a step further with a favorite quote: Patience is not simply the ability to wait - it's how we behave while we're waiting.
Until next time,
May this be the year you keep all your good habits!
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