Most New Year’s resolutions fail for one simple reason: they never become habits.
It’s the end of the year and, for many of us, that means we have a few New Year’s resolutions. They might be going to the gym more often, eating healthier food, spending less time on Facebook and Instagram, or finally starting that meditation practice.
But here’s the problem. Resolutions quickly fade. By the time February or March comes, we can easily forget all those well-intentioned resolutions.
Habits, on the other hand, are sticky. The reason? Habits are automatic. We don’t have to think about doing them. They just sort of happen, operating in the background of everyday life. So the key to making all those New Year’s resolutions stick is simply this: turning them into regular, daily, habits.
What’s the best way to do that? Here are five strategies drawn from an emerging body of research on habit formation.
1. Stack your new habits on top of existing habits.
Habit expert James Clear calls this technique “habit stacking.” It’s the idea that we increase our likelihood of building a new habit by tethering it to an existing habit. For example, let’s say you want to build the habit of meditating for five minutes each day. One way to build this habit would be to say to yourself, “I’m going to try to meditate for five minutes each day.” A better way would be to stack it on top of an existing habit, to say to yourself, “After I brush my teeth each morning, I will meditate for five minutes.”
2. Start small.
Stanford researcher and habit expert BJ Fogg notes in his book Tiny Habits that the key to habit formation is to start with small steps you can realistically achieve. If you are new to running, for example, starting with a 10-mile run is a recipe for failure. It’s better to start with a mile, then 2 miles, then three miles, and so on.
3. Make a 100 percent commitment.
Building a habit requires doing it every day until it becomes automatic. And that requires a mindset of 100 percent commitment to doing this new habit every day, no matter what. Ironically, it’s much easier to commit 100 percent than it is to make a 95 percent commitment. That 5 percent, after all, invites all sorts of indecision and internal struggle. It fuels the voice in your head that says, “it wouldn’t be that bad if I skipped just this one day, would it?” With a 100 percent commitment, that voice loses its power.
4. Create an environment that supports your new habit.
Research on habits indicates that the environment you live and work in plays a powerful role in shaping your habits. If you want to lose weight by eating healthier food, for example, living in a house with an endless supply of ice cream, donuts, and junk food makes it really difficult to succeed. A better strategy is to create a context that supports your new habit, in this case, to remove the foods that tempt you and stock your kitchen with healthy options.
5. Leverage the power of social accountability.
You can do this in two ways. First, you can team up with an accountability partner, a friend, a coworker, or a family member. Tell them your goal and check in once every week or two on your progress. Your desire to avoid disappointing them will add additional motivation to building your new habit.
The second way to do this is to join a group of people who share your interest in forming the habit. If you want to build a habit of meditation, for example, join a meditation group. If you want to run more frequently, join a running club. Surrounding yourself with others who share a similar interest in building this new habit creates a subtle form of reputational pressure. To stay in the group, after all, you must stick with your new habit.
Without these strategies, the sad fact is that most New Year’s resolutions fail. I used to be a member of at a yoga studio in Los Angeles. And I remember how, during the first three weeks of January, the classes filled to capacity with newcomers eager to build the habit of doing yoga. By the end of January, however, most of them were gone. The class returned to the group of regulars who had always been there. The New Year’s resolution crew had disappeared.
The bad news is that this is the way it generally goes with New Year’s resolutions. The good news is that, if you can turn these resolutions into habits, they will slowly shift from requiring enormous amounts of motivation and will to becoming automatic daily rituals that stick with you throughout the rest of the year.