Amid the familiar traditions of ringing in the New Year, fireworks and midnight countdowns, comes the quiet little chat that we have with ourselves as we contemplate the year ahead. We stand in silence for a moment vowing to ourselves “I will change, I will chase my dream, I won’t get trapped in the same old patterns.” Of course a fresh start can happen any day you choose, but it is hard to resist using January the first as a jumping-off point. And why not take this opportunity to make or break a habit. The New Year brings us plenty of resolve. To help you keep that resolve I have been looking at the research into forming new healthy habits and breaking the old ones.
If the statistics are to be believed last December, 2015, saw around two thirds of us make a new years resolution. Loosing weight topped our wish lists, whilst other popular resolutions included having a better work-life balance, exercising more, stopping smoking, and having a healthier, more balanced diet. Whilst the research is unclear on how many people achieve their desired resolutions there is some reason to be pessimistic as a little over 30% admitted having broken their resolutions before January was out.
But why are resolutions so difficult to keep and what does psychology have to teach us about how to not only make but to keep up our new healthy habits?
Psychologists recently proposed that, for behaviour change to occur, people must have the capability, opportunity and motivation to make it happen. The reality is that many people believe that simply because it is New Year they are obliged to make some resolutions but are not sufficiently motivated enough to work towards change in the first place. The reality is that many of us are not ready to change our habits, particularly bad habits, accounting for the high failure rate when it comes to keeping our resolutions. We are quite literally setting ourselves up for failure... and failure is not a good motivator. By setting unreasonable and unattainable goals for ourselves we can leave ourselves vulnerable to experiencing negative emotions and a lack of motivation when we fail to reach them. Failing to meet the goals we set for ourselves can in turn take a negative toll on our self-worth. So before you make a resolution simply because it is New Year and everyone around you seems to be turning over a new leaf, take a moment to reflect on your motivation and capacity for change.
So how can you go about making resolutions that are set to last? To start with you have to set yourself up right. Ask yourself this “If there was no pressure from anyone else, what is it that I would honestly like to change about myself or my circumstances?” This question helps us to address an important distinction between internal and external motivating forces. The research indicates that those who have an internal motivation to change, rather than external motivation, such as friends and family, are much more likely to successfully cultivate new habits.
Now that you are making a resolution for all of the right reasons, the next question to ask is are you both physically and psychologically prepared to do what it takes to succeed? The science of willpower shows us that willpower is a bit like a muscle, we can exercise it and increase its power and capacity, but we have to be careful not to overuse it or it can quickly become depleted! Therefore, making only one resolution and putting all of your energy and willpower into that can help you to successfully see it through. Making several resolutions can be self-defeating as you simply have fewer resources available to put into each.
Habits form through the repetition of the same response to the same cue. The way we think creates pathways and memories in our brain, which become the default basis for choosing our response when we are faced with a choice or decision. So when it comes to cultivating new habits we have to focus not only on the behavior itself but also the way we think about it and the way we narrate the experience to ourselves. You have to create new neural pathways in your brain in order to change old habits. So forming new habits isn’t all about behavior it has a lot to do with thoughts as well. Start to bring awareness to how you think and talk to yourself as you embark on the journey of change.
Research suggests that on average it takes around 66 days to form a new habit. This means that you have to be willing to put in the energy and time to change your habits until at least March if you are to see any lasting changes and for these new habits to simply become part and parcel of the fabric of your everyday life. The reality is the unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors that you now want to change have developed over the course of time, and in many cases a considerable length of time. Thus, replacing these behaviors with healthier ones is no going to happen over night. The same research also indicates that simple habits, such as drinking a glass of water when you get out of bed, are much easier to habitualise than more complex habits, such as going to the gym three times a week. This tells us that by breaking down our goals into small, simple and specific parts and working on each of these until we reach our overarching goal can be a good strategy. So for example, if your aim is to get fitter perhaps start with taking the stairs at work rather than committing to a five day a week gym schedule.
Remember too that if you find yourself needing a little more motivation and inspiration to support change and make your resolutions stick reach out into your local community there are always lots of people wanting to help. If you feel overwhelmed or unable to meet your goals on your own, you might even consider seeking professional help. Psychologists are uniquely trained to understand the connection between the mind and body and can offer practical and helpful strategies as to how to adjust your goals so that they are attainable, as well as help you change unhealthy behaviors and address emotional issues.
But wherever you find yourself as you hear those bells chiming it is worth remembering that sometimes there are very good reasons why we are not slimmer, more balanced, or in some other way better than we currently are…and that is simply that we don’t really need to be.