New Year's Resolutions

The hustle and bustle of the holidays can leave many people exhausted and ready to return to a comfortable, healthy routine. And yet January isn’t always the time of rest and recuperation that it should be.

Instead, the pressure of New Year resolutions and expectations can be stressful and overwhelming. While January is an excellent time to make healthy changes, it’s important that you approach your goals in a way that is healthy and sustainable.

We are what we repeatedly do. 

Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Will Durant

One alternative for the coming weeks is to set aside some time to reflect back on the previous year and identify an aspect of your life that could use some attention. Whether that’s your physical health, your emotional well-being, or a hobby or passion that you’d like to nurture, it’s often helpful to narrow down your focus to one specific goal or intention. When you’ve decided what that is, brainstorm some small, concrete steps you can take on a daily basis to move you closer to your goal.

Did you know?

  • According to the same article, keystone habits are habits that have a ripple effect in our daily routine to improve other behaviors. For example, exercising regularly might boost your energy and mood, which could lead to other new habits like smiling more or procrastinating less, which in turn have other ripple effects
  • According to one study, about 50% of people who set out to create a new habit succeed

Breaking or changing a habit

Many people around this time of year are looking to break a habit or cut down on a behavior that’s bad for their health. Whether that’s smoking, eating a certain way, or a negative thought pattern, this is an excellent time to replace a less-healthy aspect of your routine with a more positive habit. Breaking a habit you’ve come to depend on can be tough – here are three strategies to help you out.

Take it one step at at time

One strategy is to brainstorm ways of decreasing your consumption, instead of cutting it out completely. Setting smaller, day-by-day goals can help you get the ball rolling and fight that feeling of being totally overwhelmed.  In addition to this, look for ways to replace the negative behavior with another, similar ritual that’s healthier for your body. Whether that’s swapping out your evening glass of wine for a cup of tea or soda, or setting a limit for yourself when you go out, by focusing on habits that are sustainable long-term, there’s often less of a feeling of guilt and denial.

Schedule your time

This tip doesn’t apply if you’re currently struggling with addiction. However, if you’re simply looking to cut back on something, consider choosing certain nights per week to abstain from the habit and create a plan  to focus on something else during those “off” days. For example, you might give up sugar for four days per week, and on those days, have a healthy alternative for a post-dinner treat. The more organized you are about how you’ll replace the behavior, the more likely you are to succeed.

Change up your environment

If you’re having trouble changing a behavior, look at your environment. Jennifer Labrecque at USC recently published a study where she found that altering one’s surroundings is more effective at changing behavior than goal-setting alone. Many of our actions are automatic–we don’t even realize we’re reaching for that second piece of candy until we already have it–so when we disrupt our automatic behavior through changes in our environment, we’re more likely to make different choices.

In many discussions about goal-setting, there’s an over-emphasis on will power, as though through self control alone people can make major changes in their lives.

This emphasis is often misplaced. Things we do automatically aren’t governed by will; often, we aren’t even aware we’re making a decision when we fail to uphold our resolutions. That’s why removing environmental cues for certain behaviors can have such a huge affect on our day-to-day actions. If you’re used to having a beer every day when you get home from work, but the beer isn’t in the fridge, that moment when you’re reaching for the bottle and it’s not there gives your brain a few seconds to catch up with your body.

Our physical environments shape our behavior more than we realize. Lee Robins, the psychiatric researcher who conducted a study on Vietnam vets found that nearly 20% of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam were actively addicted to heroin while overseas. Upon returning home, 95% did not relapse. When these servicemen came home to the U.S. not only was their access to the drug reduced, they experienced a dramatic shift in environment. Robins spent decades defending her research because the results seemed contrary to everything we’ve learned about addiction and drug abuse. And yet subsequent research has found that over time we begin to associate certain behaviors with the environments in which we carry them out. If you always take a smoke break in the parking lot of your office, your brain begins to associate that parking lot with a nicotine rush, and every time you walk by, you’re thinking about smoking.

When attempting to replace or create a habit, it’s helpful to think about the cues in your day-to-day life that might pose challenges. If you want to write every morning before work, create a space in your home that’s specifically devoted to writing. Then think about anything you might do during this time period instead of writing, and remove the cues that would encourage you to procrastinate. Look into apps that limit social media use during certain hours, move your coffee machine closer to your writing nook, include a reminder to write in the alarm you set on your phone. Any small cues you can develop that remind you to write will help the activity seep into your routine.

Adding a habit to your routine

Researchers at the University College London studied 96 people over a 12-month period as they added a habit to their routine. They found that it takes an average of 66 days to develop a habit and have it feel automatic (although that time frame can vary widely based on the behavior and the person). That said, the results are promising if you’re hoping to create a long-term change in your daily life. A lot of the strategies we’ve already talked about can be applied to forming new positive habits, as well as breaking old bad ones. But here is one last tip…

Pair new and old habits

One strategy publicized by B.J. Fogg is to anchor a new habit to something you already do. S.J. Scott came up with a few examples in an article about habit development: “After brushing my teeth at night, I will write down everything that I ate for the day,” or “After I get to my car from work, I will change into my workout clothes and walk for 10 minutes.” By associating the new habit with something you already do, the belief is that it will be absorbed more quickly into your regular routine, and thus be easier to stick with.

By starting small—for example, putting pen to paper for a few minutes at the start of your day, or spending part of your lunch break to meditate or perform a physical activity—you’ll feel encouraged by you own ability meet the goal and inspired to pursue it even more enthusiastically.

The new year should be an exciting, inspiring time, when you have the opportunity to reflect back on your relationships, habits and blessings and look for ways to welcome even more into your life in the coming months. Changing your habits can be hard. But remember that even small changes, when performed regularly, can have a huge positive impact on your health and happiness.