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Health & Wellness: Psychology-based tips to stick to your New Year’s resolutions

By Jacob Bingham - Special to the Daily Herald | Dec 28, 2022

Sammy Jo Hester, Daily Herald file photo

Jared Marshall works out on Monday, Jan. 9, 2016, at the Provo Recreation Center. Marshall and his gym partner Greg Wilson have been attending the gym for months together. Each year the gym sees an upsurge of memberships around this time of year due to New Year's resolutions.

Everybody knows the cycle of New Year’s resolutions. You begin the year motivated and excited. Ready to change your life for the better, you create a laundry list of all the habits you are going to build this year. You commit to start exercising again, quit drinking so much soda and read more books. The first few weeks of the year begin with herculean effort and monk-like vigilance as you faithfully carry out your resolutions. However, as work resumes and life renews its demands, you begin missing days and fall back into your old routines.

Don’t fret, though; you are certainly not alone. Approximately 77% of people maintain their New Year’s resolutions for just one week. A meager 19% maintain their resolutions two years later. If people are so motivated to change their lives, how do so many fall back into their old routines? The answer has to do with the science of habit formation.

Within psychology, habits are defined as “actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.” We engage with a large portion of our lives habitually, with very little contemplation or critical thought. One psychological study estimated that 43% of activities that study participants engaged in each day were done habitually. If these predictions are accurate, almost half of our lives are carried out without a second thought. Fortunately, we can harness the power of habits for good to create successful and fulfilling lives. Here are some psychology-backed recommendations that will ensure you stick with your New Year’s resolutions in 2023.

Start small

Many people’s initial inclination when starting a new habit is to do as much as possible. They believe that more blood, sweat and tears will make their habit unbreakable. In reality, it is better to start small. When starting something new, you want to make your habits so easy to complete that you can’t say no. If your goal is to work out every day, start by doing just one set of pushups during your lunch break. Once you have done that for a week successfully, increase the number of pushups you do by a set or two.

Being consistent with your habits is much more important than infrequently performing your habits for a longer duration or at a higher intensity. For example, if you improved by 1% every day during 2023, you would theoretically be 37 times better by the end of the year. While growth in the real world doesn’t happen so quickly, this mathematical example highlights the power of incremental growth. Small improvements add up over time, so don’t get discouraged by slow or intermittent progress.

Researchers like Katy Milkman also emphasize that being flexible and forgiving with yourself is also very important for maintaining your habits over the long term. People are less likely to stick with their habits when they see a small deviation from their ideal plan as a failure. So, another way to increase your chances of sticking with your habits is to build some flexibility into your schedule.

Productivity YouTuber Matt D’Avella likes to use the two-day rule to keep his habits strong while giving himself some flexibility. The two-day rule states that you can miss one day of your habit, but you should try to avoid missing two days in a row. By following this rule, you don’t have to worry about being perfect. When life happens and you miss a day, you can dust yourself off and continue with your habit the next day. Jaime Escalante captured this sentiment perfectly when he advised that “life is not about how many times you fall down. It’s about how many times you get back up.”

Gamify your habits

Research shows that habits with immediate rewards are very easy to condition. Think about how easy it is to develop a habit of eating junk food or checking your phone. These activities provide immediate gratification and offer a clear link between the stimulus and reward. Conversely, the rewards of healthy habits such as exercising, eating healthy and reading manifest themselves in the long term, which makes it much harder to establish a clear link between your actions and their consequences. So, it seems that our brains are hardwired to engage in destructive habits that provide immediate rewards.

One way around this biological constraint is to gamify your habits. Most people like games and like to win games even more. Winning is immediately rewarding and makes people more likely to participate in the activity that they won in the future. Challenge yourself or your friends to be consistent with your habits. Make it your goal to set a new personal record in the gym or to beat your previous streak of days meditating consecutively. By turning life into a game against yourself, you are giving yourself an immediate psychological reward for your little victories. Gamify your habits and turn your brain’s built-in desire for immediate rewards into an asset.

Optimize your environment

Habit expert James Clear describes the four stages of habits as (1) cue, (2) craving, (3) response and (4) reward. The cue provides feedback to you that something in your environment is not the way you want it to be. This, in turn, generates a craving: a desire to change your immediate circumstances. Then, you engage in a certain action to fix the situation, which is your response. Finally, your responses are rewarded by a change in the environment. One of the most effective ways to form new habits is to create an environment that provides more cues for positive habits and fewer cues for unhelpful habits. For example, if your goal is to exercise every morning, you can put your gym clothes on your nightstand so that they are the first thing that you see in the morning. To decrease undesirable habits, such as eating junk food, you can hide all of the unhealthy food in the house; this decreases the number of cues in the environment, which consequently decreases the number of cravings you experience to eat junk food.

The power of optimizing your environment can be seen through the heroin epidemic among soldiers in the Vietnam War. During the war, the majority of soldiers were addicted to heroin. Government officials and civilians worried about how the country would be impacted once these addicted soldiers returned from battle. However, almost all of the veterans that were addicted to heroin in Vietnam became sober immediately upon returning home; a mere 5% of these veterans relapsed. This statistic perplexed laymen and scientists alike, as previous research indicated that 90% of addicts in the United States relapsed at some point. Contemporary research in neuroscience has elucidated the environment’s monumental contribution to our behavior, especially in the context of addiction. Our environment provides many of the cues that influence our behaviors. When the environment changes, so do our behaviors, often without our awareness. Therefore, to change yourself and develop habits, it is important to create an environment that supports your goals and eliminates cues for undesirable behaviors.

Hold yourself accountable

People are more consistent with their habits when they have some form of accountability. External sources of accountability are especially effective; it is human nature to care what other people think, and nobody wants to disappoint their friends and family by failing to stick with their New Year’s resolutions. Consider declaring your resolutions on social media and providing periodic updates on your progress. This will increase positive peer pressure to continue with your resolutions even when it is difficult.

Many people dislike the pressure that posting their goals on social media could bring or are afraid of the shame of public failure. Fortunately, internal systems of accountability can also increase the likelihood that you stick with your habits. Using personal aids such as a checklist, fitness watch or tracking app can create a sense of personal accountability and make you more likely to stick with your habits. Writing down your goals can also help you to maintain your habits consistently. Brian Tracy intimated the importance of written goals this way: “A goal that is not in writing is like cigarette smoke: it drifts away and disappears.” As you go into the next year, make sure that you write down your objectives and utilize both internal and external sources of accountability. These tools will help you remember your motivation for building new habits and remind you that your effort is worthwhile.

Choose habits that are meaningful to you

As you go into the new year, remember that your habits are meant to serve you, not vice versa. Many people fail to stick with their resolutions because they are choosing to build habits that have no personal significance to them. Ergo, avoid choosing resolutions because you are supposed to; choose resolutions that truly enhance your life and will benefit you in the long term. Don’t be afraid to replace a habit if it is no longer serving you. Additionally, try to steer clear of perfectionism. The optimal routine will do you no good if you cannot sustain it consistently. The true optimal routine consists of small habits that you can maintain and build upon. This year, focus on building your habits brick by brick with small, incremental improvements over time. Lifelong habits are a bit like Rome: They aren’t built in a day.

Jacob Bingham is a project manager at Stage Marketing, a full-service content marketing agency based in Provo.


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