Most people set resolutions to stop or start a behavior- stop staying up so late, start that side project, stop impulse buying, or start working out more. But the sad truth is that 92% of people fail to keep their resolutions. That's billions of people who are trying to improve themselves. Why is that? And how are the other 8% successful? One word…Habits.
Habits are the behaviors we practice automatically to get through our days. But, according to this study, we spend almost half of our day on autopilot. That's because when we operate on habits or unconscious actions, we free up our brain's processing power for larger or more complex tasks. Habits can be divided into three groups. First, muscle memory habits, like tying your shoe or signing your name, are the ones you've been doing for so long that they don't even register anymore. The second group is habits we intentionally set for personal wellness. Think brushing your teeth or taking your morning vitamins- these can take place when you're half asleep, but you made the initial effort to implement them into your routine. The third group is habits we made unintentionally but got stuck because of high rewards. Smoking, overspending, or doom-scrolling all fall into this category.
Let's start with our second group of habits- the ones we intentionally set for our well-being. Establishing an effective habit means it should be practical and easy to monitor. So how do you set yourself up for success? James Clear gives us the perfect framework in his book Atomic Habits. Make it obvious If your new habit requires tools or equipment, don't hide them or make them complicated. Want to drink more water? Put a bottle by your keys to grab and go in the morning. Are you trying to learn a new skill? Take your books with you, bookmark the website on your browser, or stick the app beside your most used social media widget. These visual reminders will act as cues to keep you on track. Make it attractive If your goal is to work out more, but you hate running, DON'T force running into your routine. The same goes for learning a new skill or eating better. So instead, start with things you already like or find interesting. In this day and age, we have an overwhelming amount of access to knowledge and products. You need to do a little digging to find what fits you. Building habits builds momentum, which can create motivation for those other less appealing tasks later on. Make it easy The more effort it takes to start your new habit, the less likely it is to happen regularly. For example, a word of the day calendar on your desk is more likely to improve your vocabulary than going to a website; having a crockpot meal ready when you get home means you don't have to cook after work. Remember, your brain favors habits that simplify your life, not complicate it. Make it satisfying Your brain is looking for the dopamine rush of feel-good chemicals from accomplishment. Make sure your resolution is something you want and will feel good working toward this year. It's also important to make the daily habit something you can accomplish regularly; our brain uses that dopamine rush as a chemical reward that enforces the first step of the habit.
Our third group of habits is the ones we formed accidentally. These habits (typically unhealthy) became our go-to when we needed soothing. Rewriting these habits can be more complicated than starting a new one, so give your resolution some thought. Can you add a new habit instead of getting rid of an old one? For example, sometimes it's easier to eat more vegetables than to cut out dessert. Charles Duhigg has a great model for rewriting habits. We keep the initial cue and reward of the habit; we just alter the action in the middle. This keeps our brain happy with those feel-good chemicals while still making progress toward our goals. Say you want to cut back on caffeine. Assuming your morning habit involves starting the coffee maker, a simple change to decaf means you're going through the same motions and ending up with coffee. The same initial cue (starting the coffee maker) and the same reward (cup of coffee) means your brain is sending out dopamine because that's what it's been trained to do. You simply changed the action of using decaf instead of regular coffee. Identifying your bad habit's initial cues and triggers is the first step to changing them. What makes you want to do it in the first place? Our environment plays a significant role in our habits; making your good habits easily accessible and your bad habits complicated to initiate (or completely inaccessible) can be instrumental in rewriting your autopilot process.
Instead of starting the year with a considerable change to your routine, break your goal into small milestones accomplished by implementing one habit change at a time. When you do this, you can capitalize on the ripple effect. By practicing new habits (or rewriting old ones) for 30 seconds daily, you gain momentum into successfully achieving more complicated habits with bigger payoffs. The key is to pick your battles; learn with a single habit, then try with another. Don't overload at the beginning. You can use this same model to unlearn instant gratification by starting your day with something that requires discipline. For example, it could be not hitting the snooze button, waiting until you're at work to make your coffee, or starting your day with a morning jog. By conditioning our brain to be patient and practice discipline, we decrease our chances of falling back into our previous autopilot tendencies while increasing our awareness of triggers for dopamine rushes.
So you've identified your triggers and can't seem to rewrite your bad habits, or you made an easy and attractive model that doesn't seem to be working. Don't feel too bad. You're not alone. The problem with trying to trick your brain is that you're using it to trick itself. If you're struggling to convince your brain that this new habit is better for you in the long run, try to figure out your motivation and accountability style to use as a springboard. Gretchen Rubun posits that people fall into four categories: upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels. Each category has a different motivation set that impacts their ability to fulfill commitments. Upholders are very good at fulfilling their personal expectations and meeting external ones. These people are usually very self-sufficient and good at meeting goals. Having reminders for off days helps keep them on track when they start to slip. Questioners tend to meet their own expectations but not others. They need lots of information about why they are doing something, so having a list of benefits or optimizing processes can be exceptionally helpful to them when it comes to achieving goals. Obligers struggle with personal goals but meet outside expectations. This group does exceedingly well when they have someone to hold them accountable or are in a group that is working towards the same goal. Rebels struggle with personal and external expectations. Having a sounding board to work through hang-ups, access to factual information, and customization or flexibility of habits can help them find success. New Year's Resolutions can be a great way to reflect and grow each year if you approach your goal-setting with intention. If you've struggled to keep your resolutions in the past, take a step back and consider whether you are trying to create or rewrite a habit. Once you've determined the kind of discipline you need to succeed, try one of these frameworks to help set you up for success. What's your New Year's Resolution this year?