Making New Year’s Resolutions that Really Stick

Each year right around Hanukkah and Christmas, the airwaves are abuzz with advice about how to make and keep New Year’s Resolutions. We all want better lives next year. We resolve to be happier, healthier, skinnier, richer, more adventurous, more productive…We want to improve. And why not? It’s human nature to want to keep learning, to keep having new experiences.

But successful New Year’s Resolutions are not just about hope and wishful thinking, they are about taking action to change habits. And that’s a tricky thing to do.

We all have habits. Some good, some bad. Psychology tells us that a habit develops within a psychological pattern called a “habit loop.” It’s a three-step process: first a trigger or cue sets us off, then there is the behavior, the habit itself, and then there is a reward. The brain loves the reward. It creates neural pathways to find that reward again and again. Once the brain gets into a habit loop, it relaxes and these pathways become habitual, deeply rooted ways of being.

Have you ever driven down a deeply rutted dirt road? It’s hard to keep your tires from going into those ruts. The brain’s neural pathways behave just like those ruts, grabbing your tires, pulling your wheels out of alignment. This is good news when it comes to good habits, and bad news when you try to break some of those other habits. In either case habits are the conditioned responses we have to our experiences. Which mean that they can be de-conditioned, re-conditioned, or even air-conditioned. It’s up to you.

An optimist will tell you that you can harness the power of intention to create transformation in your life. A realist will tell you that intention is a good place to start, but you’ve got to make new ruts in your road. Create new habits!

Here are a few things to look for when making New Year’s Resolutions that might really stick this time:

Wake Up Call – To radically change your behavior often takes some kind of motivation. It can be as overt as a heart attack or as subtle as lethargy. Watch for the signs. Heed the call.

Mindfulness – Identify your patterns and ways of being. Inner patterns self-perpetuate. Get to know what yours are. Maybe you eat too much dessert when you linger at the dinner table? Maybe you always smoke when you take your coffee on the porch?

Anchor Habit – Build your new habit by tying it to a habit you already do automatically. If you drink coffee every single morning, link your meditation practice to that first cup of coffee. Or maybe you watch the news every night before you go to bed, make the news a trigger to flossing your teeth.

Choice Architecture – Choice architecture is a term coined by behavioral economist Richard Thaler. It has to do with crafting subtle interventions that influence and guide consumer decision-making toward personally and socially desirable behaviors. You can craft such interventions for yourself by designing your environment in such a way as it does not detract from the choice you want to make. In the simplest terms, if you want to stop eating a doughnut every morning on your way to work, take a different route that does not pass by the bakery.

Celebrate – Keep track of your progress toward your goal. Congratulate yourself for the steps you take.

Wishing you all the best for the holidays and the new year!


Image credit: Alan Cleaver