Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time where we tend to review all the things we don’t like about ourselves and our habits, and resolve to be better next year. We expect to emerge on January the 1st as a beautiful butterfly out of the cocoon of what went wrong the year before. We tell ourselves we’ll be healthier, happier and better.
But come January 2nd, we’ve eaten a box of chocolates, haven’t exercised and have a mountain of books we haven’t read. We think we’ve failed, resolve to give up, and try again next year. When next year finally comes, the cycle repeats.
It’s time to break that cycle; using science, psychology and a sprinkle of common sense, here are the best ways to actually stick to your new years resolutions and make 2018 the best year yet! (Well, or at least a good year).
So many times when we set our New Year’s Resolutions, we begin from the negative. We think we’re too fat, too unhealthy, too anti-social, drink too much, are too messy, and so make New Year’s Resolutions that reflect our negative attitude towards ourselves.
Studies have shown that negative framing has a serious impact on how we percieve ourselves, and most importantly, our view of the likelihood of a good outcome. If we begin with framing our resolutions as a solution to our negative attributes, then we already view ourselves with a negative mindset, meaning that we don’t think we can stick to them. If we don’t think we can stick to them, then the likelihood we will significantly decreases. This is because if we say to ourselves “I’m a lazy person, and I want to be less lazy” then when we fail at the resolution to be less lazy, this will just confirm our worldview, and we will see it as inevitable.
However, if we frame our New Year’s Resolutions as a positive change, coming from a positive place, then we are far more likely to stick to them. Compare the two following statements:
A) “I eat unhealthily because I have no self-control and am the kind of person that doesn’t eat healthily; my resolution is to stop eating unhealthily.”
B) “I eat unhealthily some of the time, but I also do eat vegetables and fruit. My resolution is to increase the amount of healthy food I eat.”
Now, which one do you think you are more likely to stick to?
This is because if statement B) you are acknowledging that you already are the kind of person that eats fruits and vegetables, therefore your resolution is to build on this basis that already exists. Cognitively, this will mean that your brain will recognise you as the kind of person who can and does eat healthily already, making it easier to stick to.
Another virtue of statement B) is that it is realistic. You’re not saying you’re going to completely change your behaviour overnight and cut out all junk food, because let’s be honest, unless you have the willpower of a saint, you’re unlikely to stick to it. Being unrealistic increases your chance of failure tenfold. This is because as soon as you eat one unhealthy thing, you’ll immediately view yourself as a failure, and that discouragement can cause you to give up the endeavour altogether.
Making your New Year’s Resolutions realistic means that you’re acknowledging your own limitations, and working around them, rather than against them.
Allow Yourself Restarts
Following on from this, allowing yourself restarts is one of the best ways to actually stick to your goals. This is because if you have problems with self-control and willpower (don’t we all), then it is almost setting yourself up for failure to think that you have to stick to your resolutions zealously.
It takes 21 days to form a new habit, so thinking the transition will be immediate is a harmful pattern of thinking. It’s okay to relapse, and try and try again.
Let’s go back to the example of eating healthily; if you swear off all unhealthy food, then when you find yourself eating a pudding, or a packet of crisps, or ordering take away with friends, you’ll feel a strong sense of guilt and anxiety, and most likely berate yourself to the point of giving up. Instead, allow yourself the occasional treat, and allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes. With this mindset, you are far more likely to achieve your goals, as you’re giving yourself time and room for error.
Get Specific With It
So many times when we make resolutions, we formulate them in very simple, generic terms like “eating healthily”, “going running”, or “stopping smoking”. We buy our gym membership, remove all temptation from the house, and wait for a miracle to happen. But, a person without a plan is a person who is likely to end up disappointed.
If you make highly general statements, they are more like wishes; unlikely to come true. Whereas, if you set specific intentions and have specific things you wish to achieve, you are more likely to stick to your plan, as you have a sense of accountability. To generally say you wish to eat healthily can be confusing, as there are so many facets to eating healthily; do you want to cut out all junk? Limit it? What counts as healthy food?
Such an open-ended statement means that you give yourself many more chances at failing, as you have no idea what you’re actually trying to do. Yet, if you make it specific, then it’s more noticeable if you don’t stick to it, and you’ll know exactly what you’ll need to do, so are more likely to follow the plan.
For instance, instead of saying “I wish to eat healthily”, try making a New Year’s Resolution that states “I wish to eat more fruits and vegetables, and I’m going to do this by limiting the days I can eat junk food to Saturday and Sunday. I’m going to plan my meals in advance, and cook my own lunches by buying these groceries.”
You are far more likely to actually stick to this plan because it’s so specific, and gives you detailed instructions. In a way, having a plan functions as a commitment strategy. A commitment strategy is a way of psychologically forcing yourself to do something by committing yourself to some future goal. For instance, setting an alarm is a commitment strategy, because it’s going to make you do something good in the future. By making a specific plan, you are committing yourself and limiting your future options so you don’t make myopic (short term)
Set Goals, Not Just Resolutions
This tactic follows from making a specific plan; make specific goals. Setting a goal gives you something to work towards, something to measure, something to feel good about when you finally reach it.
It’s one thing to set an intention to leave your house, but unless you have a destination, you’re likely to get lost, or wander aimlessly without a point. Having a goal gives you a heading, a tangible thing to work for.
Let’s once again go back to the example of eating healthily; if you set a goal to “eat five fruits or vegetables per day” or “home cook four nights a week”, then you have specific things to achieve. This will give you a strong sense of purpose. Many experiments and pieces of research have shown that having a purpose is a defining factor in the achievement of outcomes; it gives you the drive and motivation to continue. Working purposefully towards something inspires you because you know exactly what you’re doing, and by combining this with having a specific plan, how to get there.
Find your ‘Why?’
Speaking of motivations, before you begin it’s important to take some time to figure out exactly why you’re setting these resolutions. If its just because they are trendy, or because you feel you should, these motivations are quite weak. However, if your motivation for say, you guessed it, eating healthily is because you want to feel good within your body and take care of yourself, that’s a much stronger motivation.
Finding a motivation that works towards a specific and positive end goal, you being happy, is far more likely to drive you than just giving lip service to changing your habits and your life.
Spend five minutes really thinking about why you want to change. A great tactic is to create a brainstorm for each New Year’s Resolution of all the reasons. This exercise will make your motivations more tangible, and make them feel more real to you, therefore cementing them in your mind.
Stick Them Somewhere You Can See Them
Many people make New Year’s Resolutions, then two weeks later have forgotten what they are. Life tends to get in the way sometimes. Writing down your resolutions, and the specific things you’re going to do to achieve them is a surefire way to hold yourself accountable and remind you what you want to happen.
Stick them on a piece of paper, and put them somewhere you look every day. This will mean that they are always on your mind, and so whenever you’re reminded of them you’ll feel like you really want to actually stick to them. Visual cues are a great way of sticking to a plan, because it becomes a part of your consciousness; meaning even when you’re not actively thinking about eating healthily, it will filter in through your subconscious, making you more likely to stick to it. It becomes a part of your thought process.
Give Yourself A Time Limit
Committing to anything can be scary, and actually a little off-putting. Even if we truly wish to change, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine our lives being completely different, and think that we’re giving up certain things forever.
Instead, give yourself a time-limit of a week in which you’re going to try this new habit. This may sound strange, but actually, the first ten days are the hardest when breaking an old, bad habit, so saying to yourself “this is temporary, it will end in a week” will give you the boost you need to stick to it, as you know the initial discomfort will eventually end.
However, once you’ve done day one, day two, day three, etc. you may find that it gets easier and easier until it’s a cemented part of your routine, so by the time you get to the end of the week, the worst is over, and you actually begin to enjoy your new habit.
It’s like the ancient Japanese practice of Kaizen: doing something for just 60 seconds as a way to overcome laziness. Often the worst part is just beginning, so if you can do something for just 60 seconds, you overcome that barrier and have indeed begun, making it easier to continue.
One At A Time
Changing your entire life and everything about yourself may seem like a good idea, but trust me, it really isn’t. Introducing so many new, huge changes to your life can be overwhelming and exhausting, meaning that if you stop one new habit, the others tend to fall like a house of cards.
Prioritise which new habits are most pressing to introduce, and focus on just two or three. Making two or three changes will give you the focus to really work on them, and once you’ve done it twice or thrice, you will know that you can do it again with more habits. It’s okay to start small.
Reflect On The Good Things
It’s always good to show yourself a little love and appreciation, and actually at the turn of a new year it’s always good to take some time to reflect on how far you’ve come, take stock of your life, and acknowledge that actually, you’re doing pretty great all in all.
Take some time out today to go through your year, writing down all the good things you did for others, the great memories that stick out, and the things you’ve achieved.
This will help you develop a positive mindset as you ring in the new year, and start it off the right way.
Bringing It All Together
We all know that changing is hard, but it’s not impossible. Combining the steps above, you will find yourself far more likely to stick to your goals and ambitions, and make 2018 a fabulous year.
Let’s evaluate how far we’ve come from our initial statement:
“I want to eat healthily.”
Now, we get something more like:
“I already eat fruits and vegetables, but next year I would like to build on this habit and eat five fruits and vegetables each and every day, as well as home cooking four healthy meals per week. I am going to achieve this by pre-preparing meals, buying a quick and easy healthy recipe book, and lunches, and ordering groceries that contain lots of fruit and vegetables that I like. I am going to allow myself one cheat day a week where I can eat what I like. I am doing this because I wish to take care of myself and my body so I can hopefully enjoy many more years of life. I will try and commit to this habit for a week, and see how it goes, but if I mess up, I’m not going to punish myself, I’m just going to try again.”
Wow, that was rather wordy, but that’s exactly the way to do it. You have a specific goal, you have a specific plan to achieve that goal, you have a motivation, you have room for error, and you have committed to completing this resolution. I don’t think anything can stop you.
Now, go and have a very, very happy new year, and make this one the best year yet!
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