Making Your New Year’s Resolutions Into Successful Habits

Note pad with the words New Year written on one side and the words Goal, Plan, and Action written on the other side.

Resolutions—yes nearly everyone has at least one. It is a common tradition, at the end of every year, to make some sort of life-changing resolution for the new year. The problem is how to keep those resolutions.

According to research on the topic, about 60% of us admit that we make New Year’s resolutions but only about 8% of us are successful in achieving them.

The problem, as it turns out, is not the goal of the resolution that is so difficult to reach, but rather the process of getting there. In much of our lives, our actions are not being driven by conscious and deliberate intention but instead by unconscious habits. To be successful, you need to either build a new habit or break an old habit, depending on your goal.

So what is the trick to succeeding with your resolution? Shankar Vedantam, the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain, discussed the process of building a habit with Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and an expert on building habits.

According to Wood, most people are under the impression that all a person needs to do to achieve a goal, is to want it enough and exert enough willpower to make it happen. However, it is not that simple. One of the prime examples is the spike in gym membership sales and attendance at the beginning of January and the fall-off on participation by the end of the month.

We start with good intentions, but it’s a very different thing to do it on a consistent basis. “That’s actually how I got into this whole research area,” said Wood. “I was interested in understanding what it is that helps people persist.”

Habits are self-reinforcing. They can be difficult to start, but once in place, they have a life of their own because they stop being conscious and become automatic and unconscious. It turns out that when you build a habit, it’s like putting on a set of unconscious mental blinders. Once in place, the blinders protect you from temptations and distractions.

Wood has discovered that the key to building a habit is not willpower, but instead, avoiding friction, the chief disruptor to building a habit. When things are difficult to do, they have high friction. When doing something is effortless, there’s low friction. “And anything that reduces the struggle and the stress is going to make habits more likely to form,” said Wood.

If you want to build something into a habit, you want to remove friction and make it as unconscious and as automatic as possible. And if you’re going to interrupt a bad habit, you want to introduce friction by finding ways to make it just a little bit more conscious and mindful of the habit at the time it is being performed.

Another component of building a habit is the reward. “What we know about rewards is that our brain responds with dopamine when we get rewarded. And that dopamine is what helps to build the mental associations of habit in our brain. And this means that only certain types of rewards are really going to be useful in forming habits, and they’re the rewards you experience immediately,” explained Wood.

Things like exercising or eating healthy food often have tremendous long-term benefits, but they’re usually not very fun to do. No surprise—they don’t produce the quick dopamine bursts. So how do you form habits around healthy behaviors? You have to consciously figure out ways to link these healthy behaviors with short-term rewards. Don’t just force yourself to exercise or eat more veggies, figure out ways to make the veggies delicious, and exercising more enjoyable.

To find out more about the topic of developing a habit, and to listen to the podcast in its entirety, click here.

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Your Partner in Success,

David Cabral