As the New Year approaches, resolution fever sets in. This year, take a break from dreaming about the new and improved person you’ll become and make a plan that will ensure your success.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, succeeding at resolutions, as with any new skill or habit, is about more than inspiration. How you follow through is the most important part. Read on to learn about the best habit-building tools you’ll need to reprogram your brain and keep your resolutions this year.
Take Responsibility for the Problem
Every New Year’s resolution originates in a problem. Whether you weigh more than you’d like to, can’t climb a flight of stairs without becoming out of breath, lack an emergency savings fund, or have an addiction like smoking you can’t break, you have to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the problem before you’ll succeed at solving it.
Blaming other people and external factors for your problems is a popular human pastime. It’s a convenient way to own up to the problem and congratulate yourself on not living in denial like everyone else, without having to point the finger at your own choices and actions. However, as long as you avoid blame you avoid taking the necessary steps to change. So if you don’t actually want to be different, if you feel comfortable in your current state, however problematic it may be, go ahead and keep blaming all the outside forces you’re powerless to change.
When you’re ready to solve the problem, write a post on social media, or an email to yourself or a loved one. You don’t necessarily have to apologize, just to acknowledge that a sequence of decisions you made led you to become overweight, in debt, or whatever the problem is. Once you’ve taken responsibility you can move on to strategy.
Don’t Break the Chain
Jerry Seinfeld made this approach to habit change famous, but really it’s an idea as old as humans’ desire for self-improvement. Did you get to place gold stars on a chart at school every time you did well at an assignment or task? Or at home when you completed chores or didn’t suck your thumb for a day? Putting a sticker in a box, checking off a calendar day, or writing the big red X’s that Seinfeld recommends all deliver a little thrill to our brains. That’s why it’s just as satisfying to keep a sticker chart or crossed-off calendar as an adult.
Try the “chain” method in 2016 to not only help you keep your resolutions, but also to develop a lifelong habit. Here are some steps to get started.
- Choose a paper or digital chain. Calendars and to-do lists come in many forms these days. Decide which form will give you the most pleasure to check off. The reward of making that X or mouse click is just as important as the reward of doing your habit. Don’t feel embarrassed if gold stars are what your heart desires — go for it!
- Set a realistic goal. Exercising for 30-60 minutes 3 times a week is a lot different than working out everyday. If you commit to more than you can actually do, you’ll set yourself up for failure. Remember that continuity is more important here than quantity. Plus you can always increase the daily habit after you’ve succeeded at your baseline target for a while. So if you want to exercise every day, start with a commitment to walk for 5 minutes a day and decide when you’ll do it — in the morning, during your lunch break, or after work, for example. If you’re trying to eat better, think of a small change to start with such as drinking a glass of water before breakfast, eating one piece of fruit with your lunch, or eliminating sugar from your coffee. Notice that all of these examples included a specific time — before or after a meal, every time you have a cup of coffee. If you don’t commit up front to when, you’ll be tempted to put it off through the day.
- Hold yourself accountable. There will be days you don’t feel well, days when work and life overwhelm you and you almost forget to do your habit. So how do you push through obstacles to stay on track for daily success? Accountability. While being responsible to yourself is all well and good, our brains are incredibly sneaky at rationalization. Tell the world what you plan to do and it will be a lot harder to publicly fail. Plus, being able to report your success on social media or post a picture of your unbroken chain of X’s will increase your feelings of satisfaction.
Most people lose interest in their resolutions by mid-February. If you use the “Don’t Break the Chain” method, you could very well finish 2016 with a year of X’s. Then you’ll have to decide on a whole new resolution instead of trying and failing at the same thing every year.
Yes, the satisfaction of checking your habit off your daily to-do list is a powerful form of reward. But it never hurts to add different rewards to the mix. After all, humans acclimate quickly and what is familiar becomes less exciting. Also, making any one thing completely forbidden is a sure-fire way to become obsessed with having it.
So if you’ve added a healthy eating habit to your daily routine, let yourself look forward to a favorite dessert on Saturday or Sunday night. This doesn’t mean that you skip your habit that day — complete the habit as scheduled and enjoy your well-earned weekly treat. The reward could be anything from letting yourself lie on the couch and watch a movie once a week to buying yourself a small splurge item you’ve been coveting. It could also be a non-material reward, just as journaling about the progress you’ve made and how much better you feel since you started. The important thing is to choose a reward you’ll actually find rewarding.
Set Yourself Up for Success in 2016
Now that you know how to identify and acknowledge the problem, create a realistic daily goal, and motivate yourself to follow through with your new habit, you have everything you need to succeed this year. What could be better to toast to as the clock strikes midnight than that?