3 Tips For Making New Year’s Resolutions You Can Actually Keep
Hello and a very Happy New Year to you!
So here it is – 2018 – THE Year in which you are finally going to take control of your life.
It’s going to be awesome.
You are going to lose those stubborn few pounds; write that novel; clear all the clutter from your house; run a marathon; perfect your work-life balance and spend loads of quality time with your family and friends. You’ve been far too busy and far too stressed for far too long but this year you really are going to prioritize your health and happiness.
So you make New Year’s resolutions – lots of them!
But even as you write the list there’s a niggling voice in the back of your mind questioning how long you’re really going to stick with them. After all, it’s not as though you haven’t tried to make resolutions in the past. You really have tried to make sure you eat well, exercise, leave work on time and actually make time for the things you enjoy. Yet despite your best intentions, sooner or later life always seems to get in the way.
So what to do?
Create good habits
“You will never change your life until you change something you do every day. The secret of success lies in your daily routine” John C. Maxwell
Habits are actions we take automatically in response to a certain situation, or cue. These actions can be undertaken without much conscious thought because they have been repeated regularly enough to form a specific circuit in the brain – known as the habit loop.
Habits are the brain’s way of automating decision making. Without them we would have to make new conscious decisions about every situation in our day. For example we would have to think about how to clean our teeth, how to tie a tie, how to make coffee etc. Up to 40 % of the activities we undertake each day are habits.
When it comes to making changes in our lives, good habits can be out greatest ally: Initially making any change to behaviour requires decision making and willpower. Once a behaviour becomes a habit it no longer requires willpower and therefore becomes much easier to sustain.
If you can link an action you’d like to take regularly to something you already do regularly as part of your existing routine, it can help to set up a new habit loop.
For example, around 15 years ago I took up running. Initially every time I went for a run I would have an internal debate about whether I really wanted to go. Was it too cold? Was I too tired? Did I really have time?
Countering the obstacles I conjured up for myself took willpower. Sometimes I had the willpower to go out running anyway, sometimes I didn’t. But over time I’ve repeated the routine of lacing up my trainers (the action) as soon as I’ve finished my morning tea (the cue) so often that I now don’t really think about whether or not I want to go running – I just do it!
Use your willpower wisely
One of the common mistakes people make when they make New Year’s resolutions is trying to change too much too quickly. Adopting a new behaviour requires willpower – and unfortunately willpower is a limited resource.
New habits take time (66 days on average) to fully embed and trying to focus on too many changes at once often leads to overwhelm. Inevitably we slip up with one of the new habits and this leads to a sense of failure and a tendency to give up on all the other new habits as well. Often there will be a period of relapse before we decide to try again with renewed determination – often setting even more unrealistic targets. And so the cycle continues, with each failure undermining our belief in our ability to really make a lasting change.
I used to think that willpower was like a muscle – that I could build mine up by working it harder.
Sometimes I’d have a near ‘perfect’ day. I’d wake up early, write, go for a run, work productively without succumbing to the temptations of social media and eat healthily all day – only to dive head first into a tub of Häagen Dazs just before bedtime!
I’d just used up all my willpower to focus on ‘being good’ throughout the day and had none left to resist the lure of the late night snack.
Research (and chatting to honest friends!) suggests I’m not alone in this. Any activity that taxes us can deplete our willpower. In an experiment run by Stanford University, participants were asked to memorize either a two digit number or a seven digit number and then offered a choice of either chocolate cake or fruit as a reward for participating in the study. The participants who had been asked to memorize a seven digit number were nearly twice as likely to choose cake as those who had been asked to memorize a two digit number.
I now think of willpower as being more like money than like a muscle. It is a finite resource so I need to spend it wisely. However, investing it smartly can pay dividends.
By focusing willpower to make small, realistic changes in the areas that matter most we can increase our confidence in our ability to follow through with our resolutions and improve our chances of further success. Once the initial changes become embedded we can focus on changing something else.
But what matters most?
Build a strong foundation
When it comes to making changes, not all new habits are created equal and some changes seem to yield more widespread benefits than others. Although it can be overwhelming to consciously focus on too many changes at once, sometimes people find that building a new habit in one area leads to almost effortless change in other areas too. In his groundbreaking book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg calls these keystone habits.
Although Duhigg makes the point that it can be difficult to predict which particular habits will be key, I believe the work of Abraham Maslow can give some useful pointers.
Maslow’s well known hierarchy of needs places physiological needs at the bottom of the pyramid.
McLeod, S. A. (2017). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
For example, let’s say your New Year’s Resolution is to write a novel (an esteem / self -actualization need) and you plan to achieve this by waking an hour earlier each day to write. This will likely be a real struggle for you if you are chronically sleep deprived (a physiological need). It may be that in order to successfully build a writing habit you will need to build a new habit to improve your sleep, be this a screen time curfew; increasing your exercise or cutting back on caffeine.
Of course you might decide that writing your book is so important that you’re going to do that first and to hell with sleep and exercise etc. You’ll tackle those other resolutions once the royalties start flooding in. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – if you find you are managing to achieve what you want. However, if you’re struggling it may be that there’s a change you could make at a lower level of the pyramid that would support you.
Look back over your list:
Which of your potential resolutions will give you the best foundation?
What is the best use of your willpower?
How can you create a good habit to make your resolution automatic over time?
Make 2018 THE year you manage to stick to your resolutions. You really can lose those stubborn few pounds; write that novel; clear all the clutter from your house; run a marathon; perfect your work-life balance and spend loads of quality time with your family and friends. You can do it all – but maybe not all at once!
I wish you the very best of luck and a very Happy New Year x