It's mid-winter; do you know where your resolutions are? According to U.S. News & World Report, about 80 percent of New Year's Resolutions fail, and most people have ditched their resolve by mid-February. If you're trying to keep a New Year's resolution or just sustain a goal you set months ago, it might be tempting to rely on your willpower or motivation - after all, we're surrounded by messages that we just need to try harder and have more self-control.
But the real make-or-break for your resolutions can be found in another place - your habits. If we believe that both exercise and brushing our teeth are important, healthy habits, why does one feel so much easier than the other? Because habits are automatic, which on a neurological level, means you skip the mental energy of remembering and gathering the motivation. When we perform an action enough times, we strengthen the neural pathways required for it and make it easier for our brains to go on auto-pilot while the neural pathways we don't use regularly get pruned away. Luckily, we can use this research to our advantage and turn those annual To-Dos into next year's Tah-Dahs!
Integrate it with an existing habit
Author and researcher James Clear calls this method Habit Stacking. Think of all the things you already do by habit in a day - turning off your alarm, showering, pouring a cup of coffee, commuting to work. Use something you already do as a reminder to do your new habit. Maybe turning on the coffee maker is your reminder to sit down for a few minutes of meditation while it's brewing or walking back to your desk after lunch is your trigger for getting up to take a quick lap around the block.
Once your new habit becomes more automatic, you can stack another on it. For example, I added a habit of plugging my phone in to charge downstairs before I went up to bed because I wanted to sleep with my phone outside the room. Then once this became a habit, I started leaving a book by my bedside so that after plugging in my phone, I can go upstairs and take a few minutes to read - another habit I wanted to cultivate.This method is a super effective way to take advantage of the neural pathways your brain has already solidified.
If it feels overwhelming to commit to your goal, try starting with something that feels more achievable and practice making it a habit so that it's no longer a choice. Rather than saying you'll get in a great workout every day, maybe just set a goal to make it to that yoga class once a week for one month. Or start even smaller and just commit to waking up and putting your gym shoes on each morning. I often just tell myself I have to show up at the gym. If I get there and I don't feel like running or lifting weights, I can stretch or bike. But more often than not, just by getting myself in the habit of showing up, I get in a workout without the mental struggle beforehand.
Don't Break the Chain
Depending on your personality, it can sometimes be helpful to create a visual tracking system and mark off each day that you complete your habit. If you get to the end of a day and see that you haven't yet marked off your habit for that day, the idea of not breaking the chain can be enough to get you to complete it. This system can be as simple as a check mark on a calendar or you can create a dedicated habit tracker to post on the wall or in your phone.
Celebrate Small Wins
Give yourself a mental high five the first time you remember to drink a glass of water, not just when you finish your final glass of the day or keep the habit for a whole year. Our brains are wired to seek rewards, so if you can make your brain equate an action with a little jolt of pride, you're more likely to keep doing it. Just make sure you're not rewarding yourself with something that will undermine your goals. (i.e. Rather than rewarding your healthy week of meals with a whole pizza, get yourself a new cookbook or enjoy a healthy meal out with friends.)