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New year, no follow-through? How to build better habits

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Do your New Year’s resolutions usually fizzle out and slink away sometime in January? Do you often plan to change your whole life on Sunday night just to pull the blankets over your head and go back to sleep with the cold light of Monday morning? I feel you. Fortunately, research on motivation, goals, and habit formation can help us learn how to set goals and build habits that we’re more likely to follow through on this year.

Whether you make progress on your goals starts with what your goals are: so, choose wisely.

  • Pick goals that involve things that you genuinely want to do because they’re interesting, enjoyable, or reflect values that are important to you, and focus on those reasons. It’s easier to follow through on goals you’ve set for yourself than ones that are controlled by other people (for example, things that you feel like you should do because other people value them, or because you’ll feel bad if you don’t do them).
  • Formulate your goals in terms of approach rather than avoidance. Meaning, make your goals about moving towards something you want, rather than away from something you don’t want.
  • Focus on one or two goals at a time and see them through. A whole life overhaul – “new year, new me” – may work for some people, but for most of us, it’s overwhelming, hard to start, and nearly impossible to sustain. Real, long-term change starts with small, consistent steps.

Once you have a goal in mind, plan carefully to set yourself up for success.

  • Set up a specific plan for moving your goal from idea to action. Consider when, where, and how you will implement your goal. A plan can take the form of: I am going to [specific action] for [duration] at [time] on [date] in [place].
  • Plan your goal so that it’s SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and t. Meaning, plan something you can actually attain and figure out exactly how you’ll do it, how you’ll measure your progress, and when you intend to complete it by.

A goal is easier to make progress on and stick to when it’s become a habit. So, make your goal automatic.

  • Research tells us that making something a habit is not about self-control; it’s about setting up your environment in a way that makes the things you want to do easier, and the things that might block you from doing the things you want to do harder. For example, if your general goal is to start lifting weights, leave your weights out somewhere you can easily access them and where you spend a lot of time. If your general goal is to eat healthier, don’t keep ice-cream in the house and tell yourself you can have it only if you walk to the corner store and get a single cone.
  • Be consistent and repeat. Try to do your goal in the same context, around the same time, so that you start to automatically associate certain places and times with that behaviour. Those things become cues to do the behaviour, without you even having to think about it. For example, if you want to drink more water, leave a full glass next to your bed every night, and make it the first thing you do when you open your eyes.
  • Pair your goal with something that’s already a habit. For example, if you always boil the kettle for coffee in the morning and you want to start practicing meditation, you could meditate while you wait for the kettle to boil.
  • Make it enjoyable, either by rewarding yourself afterwards – in the previous example, that hot cup of coffee becomes your reward for meditating – or by making the activity itself fun.

And finally, be like spaghetti when the water gets hot: get bendy and flexible. Try not to fall into all-or-nothing, “change my whole life now”, “do it every day or not at all”, “oh no I’ve ruined it, I’ll start again tomorrow” thinking. That kind of thinking will derail you and ensure that you’re back to vowing a whole new you in 2023. If you find you’re not following through on a goal you’ve set, think about whether it’s the right goal. Or maybe you need to make it smaller, more manageable, or easier. If you don’t start your New Year’s resolution on the 1st, start it on the 5th, or in February, or in the middle of the day on a Tuesday in August. Just start, start small, be consistent, and adjust as you go. Good luck!

If you're struggling to build better habits, MindBeacon is here to help with a variety of supports available in our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your workplace.


Selected references:

  • Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: tiny changes, remarkable results: an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Avery.
  • Holding, A. C., & Koesnter, R. (2021). A self-determination theory perspective on how to choose, use and lose personal goals. In John Marshall Reeve (Ed). Oxford Handbook of Educational Psychology.
  • Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching one's personal goals: A motivational perspective focused on autonomy. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(1), 60.
  • Koestner, R., Otis, N., Powers, T. A., Pelletier, L., & Gagnon, H. (2008). Autonomous motivation, controlled motivation, and goal progress. Journal of personality, 76(5), 1201-1230.
  • Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment         on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-   oriented goals. PLoS One, 15(12), e0234097.
  • Wood, W. (2019). Good habits, bad habits: The science of making positive changes that stick. Pan Macmillan.
    https://behavioralscientist.org/good-habits-bad-habits-a-conversation-with-wendy-wood/
    https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/behavioral-habits

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