As the New Year approaches, most people ponder behavior changes. “New Year’s Resolutions” abound as we each declare that with the coming of the new year, we will finally do that thing we’ve been putting off doing. Yet, the majority of resolutions fail. The first few weeks are usually incredibly successful – go to any gym in January, and you’ll see this is true. By February, the backsliding has already begun. In “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives,” Gretchen Rubin identifies seven essential areas where people seek change:
1. Eat/drink more healthfully
2. Exercise regularly
3. Save/spend/earn wisely
4. Rest/relax/enjoy more
5. Stop procrastinating
6. Simplify and organize
7. Engage more deeply in relationships
While most people clearly see positive benefits in these areas of change, why in the world do so many fail to keep these resolutions? Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, argues that people often use resolutions as a way to try to motivate themselves, but this can fail because people aren’t ready to change.
Gretchen Rubin also examined the issue of why so many people fail, and learned the key to successful behavior change lies in our habits. Resolutions often fail because each day is an exercise in self-control, or an active decision to engage or not engage in behavior that supports or sabotages the change effort. Habits, on the other hand, are behaviors that are recurrent, without much awareness or conscious intent. They’re acquired through frequent repetition. Habits require no decision-making. We do what we’re programmed to do or not do. Habits free us from the need for self-control and decision-making. When we’re tired, anxious, over-stressed, or over-worked, we fall back on our habits. The key to success is to form habits to support what we’re trying to achieve.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But how do we develop habits? Here are some habit-changing strategies from Gretchen Rubin:
1. Accountability: If you believe someone’s watching, you behave differently. This creates external accountability to increase the likelihood of follow-through.
2. Safeguards: Anticipate temptations and have a plan in advance for how to handle challenges.
3. Convenience and Inconvenience: Make it easier and more accessible to do the right things and harder to do the wrong things. Change the amount of effort by just 20 seconds, and you can change a habit. Try keeping the cookies in the back of the cupboard or your workout gear by the back door.
4. Pairing: Combine behaviors you’re trying to change with certain activities. Binge Netflix shows only while on the treadmill, or eat only when sitting at the table.
5. Monitoring: If you keep close track of your actions and behaviors, you’ll do better in many categories of behavior. Try tracking apps like MyFitnessPal and MapMyRun.
Remember that things often feel harder before they get easier. Too often, we’re focused on the outcome and disillusioned when it doesn’t come true overnight. Focus on building habits for success. Remember that what we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while. We are what we repeatedly do.
Wishing you all health and happiness in the coming year.