How to Start New Year Habits That Work

The fresh start of January 1st is always an exciting time. Everyone is full of resolve and hope that this next year is going to be SO much better than the last. However, without changing ourselves, we have no reason to believe that whatever didn’t work last year will magically correct itself in the year ahead.    

Even so, resolutions are not always they key to success. In fact, one particularly illuminating study suggests that, on average, people give up on their new year’s resolve after just 17.8 days. Where does all that hope, resolve, and enthusiasm go, and why do people quit?

Why we don’t stick with our resolutions

First, a common mistake that people make is that they try to change too much at once. Perhaps they are frustrated with several different areas in their lives, and so they decide that on this arbitrary but magical day, everything is going to change. They will wake up early, meditate, work out, drink more water, lose 15 pounds, and spend more time with their kids. In the afterglow of the holidays, it is easy to forget that our lives are busy and tiring, and that reality re-emerges quickly once “real life” resumes. It’s not hard to see how someone could run out of steam quickly with such high expectations of themselves. 

Speaking of expectations, another reason that people fall off the wagon is because they aren’t seeing the results that they desire. Of course, working out is great for your physical and mental health, but if the goal is to lose 15 pounds and the scale hasn’t budged after two weeks of early morning workouts, it’s very easy to get discouraged. 

Finally, change is hard. Starting even one new habit and sustaining it is incredibly difficult. It takes time and on-going effort, of course. But something we often forget is that the pursuit of goals also requires the space and grace to fail and the resolve and determination to get back up and try again in the face of those failures. 

How we can skillfully stick with our resolutions 

So here we are, over a week into the new year. If you have made resolutions, you may or may not still be adhering to them. Most likely, the end is in sight. But it is not too late! You can still use your executive functioning skills to reconsider your resolutions and tweak them so that they will be successful.  

Here are a few things you can do to increase your odds of success: 

1. Be honest with yourself.

What do you REALLY want to change? What are you willing to work toward consistently? What kind of sacrifices are you willing to make? Choose a resolution that is meaningful to you and let everything else go. 

2. Set a process goal.

Rather than deciding that you will “lose 15 pounds,” commit to walking for 20 minutes every day, eating a vegetable at every meal, or drinking 8 glasses of water daily. You cannot control what the weight will do, but you can control the steps that you take in pursuit of that end. 

3. Change only one habit at a time.

The likelihood of success increases substantially if your focus is narrowed to one new habit. Once that behavior becomes second nature, you can make another change. Your ongoing success increases if you can continue to add new habits to existing habits, something called “habit stacking.” But the existing habits must be firmly rooted before you can start to build upon them successfully.

4. If you fall off the wagon, get back on.

Failure is part of success, so if you quit any time that you make a mistake, you won’t get very far. If you slip up once, recommit yourself. If you find that you are consistently having trouble sticking to the new habit, reflect on why that is and consider what you need to adjust to be more successful. Is exercising after work more realistic than trying to do it before work? Do you need a new water bottle that you can keep on your desk or in your backpack? If you are talking yourself out of the new behavior, why? What benefit do you gain or maintain by not changing?  

Resolutions are for any time of year

Setting goals and working toward them is an important Executive Functioning skill, and it takes time and practice. Try not to be too hard on yourself and try not to get discouraged. If change was not in the cards for you this January 1st, why not aim for February 1st or March 1st? The New Year really is just a random date that holds no inherent value in prompting or supporting change. You can tweak your life whenever you see fit. When you’re ready, start small, give yourself grace, and be sure to ask for help if you need it. We are rooting for you. 

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