The end of the year is a natural time for reflection and resolution. Chances are good that at the end of every year you sit down and make a list of things you might like to change over the coming year. Maybe last year you vowed to get fit. Maybe you wanted to eat better, quit smoking, or call your mother more frequently. Now it’s the last day of the year, and it’s time to evaluate last year’s resolutions. Making resolutions is the easy part. The hard part is sticking with them.
How do we make habits stick?
Back in the 1960s, a plastic surgeon noticed that it took his patients about 21 days to get used to their new appearance. He wrote an article about it, and his estimation of that period of adjustment became cast in stone. Motivational speakers and self-help books began proclaiming that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. While this may be true for some, for most people it takes much longer than that.
Researchers at the University College in London wanted to find out exactly how long it takes to form a new habit. Following 96 people over 12-weeks, Phillippa Lally and her colleagues found that it takes approximately 66 days for a new habit to take hold. This time frame didn’t seem to change across new habits. It took an average of 66 days to make small changes (e.g. drinking a bottle of water with lunch) or large changes (e.g. exercising daily for 15 minutes). And in other encouraging news, it didn’t matter if the study participant slipped up. If they missed a bottle of water or took a day off from exercise, the average length of time didn’t change.
So what does this mean when it comes to making (and keeping) your New Year’s resolutions?
How to achieve your New Year’s resolutions this year
Making New Year’s resolutions is the easy part. The hard part comes when the force of habit grabs you and tries to convince you to abandon your hopes for self-improvement. Don’t succumb to the beckoning of inertia, though. Stay strong and realize your New Year’s resolutions with a few easy tips.
1. Focus on the long game
You have 66 days to form a new habit. If you decide to exercise daily or incorporate two more servings of veggies into your daily diet, recognize that it will take over two months to implement these changes consistently.
Consider yourself lucky. John Hayes, a cognitive psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wanted to know just how long it takes to go from enjoying something to mastering it. He looked at composers and found that out of 76 composers and their 500 “master works,” only three pieces were composed before ten years of their career had elapsed (and those were composed in years eight and nine).
Maybe drinking a bottle of water with lunch isn’t composing a master work, but looking at the persistence of others may motivate you to make a change and keep you on track!
2. Find small actions
The secret to dramatic change lies in focusing on small things. Try the Japanese concept of kaizen, which involves tackling one small change at a time. The idea is that by amassing a series of small changes, you achieve big things.
So, if you wanted to lose weight, identify one part of your day where you’re especially tempted to indulge. Maybe when your energy drags in the late afternoon, the vending machine at work tempts you with sugary delights. When 3 p.m. rolls around and your sweet tooth starts singing, focus on getting past the craving. Do whatever you have to — walk around the block, have a cup of tea, or maybe even enjoy a piece of fruit.
Once you train yourself to avoid late afternoon sugary treats, focus on the next thing. The key tokaizen is to avoid tackling everything at once. That way your resolutions seem manageable.
3. Set aside money every month
For goals that require money, set aside a small sum every month until you’ve amassed enough to achieve your goal. If you want to visit Ireland, but find the trans-Atlantic flight busts your budget, calculate how much you’ll need to make the trip a reality. Divide that number by a number of months until you get a reasonable figure.
So let’s say a trip you want to take costs $2,000. If you put away $167 dollars per month for 12 months, you’ll have enough money. If $167 is out of your reach, can you save $83 a month over two years?
Every time you skip that Starbucks or stay in and watch a movie instead of going out, envision yourself boarding that plane. Bon voyage!
4. Define specific, reasonable goals
So your New Year’s resolution is read more. What does that mean exactly? How many books do you want to read over the next year?
A key characteristic of attainable goals is knowing exactly what you want to achieve, and making sure that goal fits comfortably within your abilities.
Let’s say you want to read one book per month. Select a book you want to read, and divide the number of pages by 30. That’s the number of pages you’ll have to read per day to finish the book by the end of the month.
If the number is too high, pick a shorter book or decrease the number of books you want to read that year. Your committed self might gasp at the idea of decreasing your goal, but you’re realistic self will thank you when you actually achieve the goals you set out to reach.
5. Recognize habit building as a process, not an event
Changing habits or starting a new habit is a complex mental and physical process. With few exceptions, it is nearly impossible to decide to change and just…change. One of the reasons developing new habits (or sticking to resolutions) is so difficult is that it brings up many other challenges.
Consider quitting smoking. When you smoke, you have an excuse to take a break at work. You may have a certain group of friends or acquaintances who join you. Smoking may be a way to mark time or deal with stress. If you quit, all of these things will change. You won’t get a regular break (except for the ones also afforded non-smokers), and you will need to find a way to manage the stress of quitting smoking on top of your regular stress. Understanding that there are steps to keeping a resolution can help you stick with it.
6. Understand that not everyone will be supportive
We like to think that making positive changes in our lives like exercising, eating healthier, or quitting smoking will garner universal support, but this is not always the case. Friends and family can sometimes be like crabs in a pot. One crab in pot will get out of the pot when the water starts to boil, but if there is more than one, the crabs will pull each other back in.
Sometimes our friends and family get comfortable thinking about us in a certain way, or our resolution conflicts with what they want. If this happens, they may try to sabotage your efforts. This does not mean that they don’t care for you and don’t want you to be healthy. It may mean that they are dealing with changes in their life that they are not happy with and want other things to stay the same. Be patient with them, politely refuse the extra butter or the smoke break, and stay the course.
Instead, look for your supporters to bolster you in trying times. Maybe you and a friend want to incorporate daily exercise. As often as possible, plan your exercise together. Also identify moral support: someone you can call if you are starting to be overwhelmed by a craving or an urge.
7. Plan ahead
Figure out which behaviors you’d like to change (or add), then write down a plan to make sure that happens. If you are adding exercise every day, sit down with your calendar and schedule it like you would an appointment.
Then, consider how you’ll replace old behaviors. This step is important if you are eliminating a behavior, like smoking or drinking. Figure out what you will replace the old behavior with, and try not to make it another negative behavior (like overeating).
8. Forgive yourself if you slip up
Remember, the study about forming habits found that slipping up didn’t change the timeline, so a slip up isn’t failure. Keep this rule of thumb: try not to let more than one day go by with or without the thing you are changing. If you are exercising daily, don’t skip more than one day in a row. If you are quitting nicotine and you sneak a smoke, don’t do it two days in a row. Forgive yourself, firm up your resolve, and keep moving forward.
The most important step is the final step: persist. If you truly want to change, you just need to do the work. No one can take that walk but you. No one can put down the pack of cigarettes but you. Think about the goals you have for yourself and set your mind to achieving them. Remember the old saying: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Making New Year’s resolutions is the first step. Just 999 to go.
What changes will you make this year?