Another year has seemingly flown by, and we are just a few days from a new year AND the beginning of a new decade. The new year is an exciting time for many of us as we look back and take stock of where we were, how far we’ve come, and what we’d like to achieve in the future. Often times this results in a sincere plan to improve some aspect of our lives also known as making a New Year’s resolution. Many of us make one or two resolutions every year with the best intentions only to have them fizzle out regardless of how much we want the habit to stick.
How to create a new habit
Making a new resolution is essentially vowing to create a new habit. In the book, “The Power of Habit” Charles Duhigg discusses at length how to create and foster new behaviors. According to Duhigg, one of the most important things to do is to recognize THE HABIT LOOP and put it to use in your pursuit of the new behavior becoming a habit. I encourage you to read or listen to the book to learn more in detail, but the basics of the habit loop are:
- Identify the routine you wish to adopt.
- Find a cue. Your cue is something that should trigger you to reproduce the desired behavior.
- Identify the reward/payoff. This is THE MOTIVATOR, and it should be something personal and valuable to you.
Finally, there must be a CRAVING for the reward that drives the habit loop. This is what makes us do things again and again so that the resolution becomes a habit, or an unconscious action. The craving usually comes after the cue and leads to a response which triggers a reward. The word craving is sometimes hard to connect to something like eating more vegetables. Instead, it is easier to think of cravings in terms of something negative. Remember, habits can be either negative or positive. Do examine your resolutions and find rewards that make you crave fulfilling our resolutions. If you can find a reward that truly motivates you, obviously it will be easier to achieve your resolution.
This all seems simple enough, right? So why do we continue to fail at creating new habits again and again?
Make your goals realistic, start small, and have fun
One of the biggest reasons people don’t achieve their goals is they shoot for the moon out of the gate. Resolutions such as going to the gym or writing in a journal EVERY DAY, or to completely stop eating sweets, or some other major new commitment can be too much of a commitment. Suddenly engaging in a new behavior full force might seem like just a firm commitment, but it might not be realistic. Instead, try making a goal that you can achieve realistically, and aim for starting slow. A few days a week is a great start. If the behavior sticks and you crave doing it or find value in the reward, you’ll automatically begin to do it more.
Sometimes, it is because the reward/payoff isn’t as strong or evident as the payoff/reward that we get from the habit we are trying to break. For example, if your resolution is to go to the gym every day but you are sacrificing sleep to do it, you may start skipping the gym to sleep and telling yourself “just this once”. Then before you know it, your resolution is out the window. In this case, the craving (sleep) outweighs the rewards from the gym. Starting smaller can help you find balance with your current commitments and make achieving your goal more feasible.
Also, realistically analyze how much the reward is actually rewarding to you. If you are hitting the gym but doing an activity that is boring or that you hate just to fulfill the resolution, there is a good chance you won’t stick with it in the long run. Find something to do there that you truly like to do and find rewarding like a spin or fitness class. Allow yourself to successfully achieve the goal on a smaller scale in a rewarding way and there is more chance you will stick with it.
Finding Cues and support
Cues should also be individualized to your life and schedule. For example, a co-worker last year resolved to drink more water. In order to achieve the goal, she refilled her water bottle between every patient. At first she would forget the bottle and then have to trek back to her desk to fetch it. It was a bit inconvenient at first, and it took some getting used to. In other words, to get her new behavior to stick required some effort. But within a short while she had created the habit to automatically grab it and fill it. In other words, she successfully created her new habit.
Cues can be any number of things. If you are trying to fit in exercise, you might plan to go to a certain class each week, or to go for a walk every day at lunch. Regardless of what your resolution is, try scheduling things in on your calendar to make time for your new habit. Another person I know has a timer on their computer set to take stretching breaks at work, while yet another person I know does their home exercise during commercial breaks while they are watching TV at night. Little bits of activity DO count towards big changes.
Let people around you know you are trying to cultivate a new positive habit. My co-worker told all of us in the office that she was trying to drink more water, and she asked us to call her on it if she was not doing it. Per her request, we did call her it when she was slacking, but we also cheered her on when we saw she was meeting her goal. Find someone to help you when you start to waver. This could be a buddy you go to the gym with, a friend you call once a week to check in, or a family member who helps you to stay on track and troubleshoot if necessary.
Be prepared to fall off the wagon, but forgive yourself and get back on it
Duhigg points out it is easiest to form a new habit when you have other changes in your life that shake up your schedule. For many of us, that break over the holidays and returning to work January 2nd is just such a time, though you can opt to try to start a new habit at any time. Still, no matter how much will power you have there will be days when your best laid plans fall through. Maybe you just couldn’t resist that cronut or cookie, or the train was late and you didn’t make it to the gym. Heck, maybe you didn’t make it to the gym for a whole week because you were on a deadline for work. Life happens! Falling off the wagon here and there happens. That doesn’t mean you can’t get back on it again. When you encounter setbacks, examine your habit loop and see if there is something that needs changing. You might need to tweak your goal or find a new reward, but trust that you can do it. In the end, it is the little things over time that add up to the biggest changes.
In good health,
Jena Backwood, PT, DPT, FMS