New Year’s Day. Fireworks explode in the sky, champagne pours into glasses, and people all over the world declare, “This is the year I’m going to make a change!” New Year’s resolutions can range from health goals (exercising more) to personal goals (learning a new language) to career goals (getting a promotion), but they all have one thing in common: 80% of people give up on their resolutions within the first six weeks.
Even for the most optimistic among us, that statistic can be a little daunting. How can we avoid succumbing to mid-February inertia after the shininess of the new year has worn away?
To answer this question, we first need to understand what New Year’s resolutions are and why people so often fail to keep them.
A New Year’s resolution usually revolves around a goal, which is often about the kind of person you want to be. I want to be healthier. I want to be more confident. To achieve that goal, you have to take some action: for example, eat more vegetables or take a course on public speaking. But it’s not enough to do it just once—to achieve your desired result, you have to make a habit out of your action. It sounds simple enough, but as we all know, making long-term lifestyle changes is never easy.
So how can we make it easier? Here are six simple tips that psychologists recommend for turning an action into a habit.
- Repetition. Psychologists say that it takes, on average, six weeks of intentional action to form an unconscious habit. This is (coincidentally?) the same amount of time it takes for 80% of people to give up on their New Year’s resolutions. If you concentrate on getting through at least the first six weeks of your new lifestyle change, the hardest part will be over, and you’ll be able to continue your habit for the rest of the year with a lower degree of effort.
- Environment. The key to doing something every day is to make it as easy as possible. Bookmark the online course on your browser. Get a membership at the gym that’s closest to your home or work. Rearrange your desk to make it as pleasant to sit at as possible. Anything that lowers the amount of effort or time it takes to complete your action will help you enormously in the long run.
- Cues. Set up and be conscious of cues that will help you form a habit. A cue can be a time of day, a location, an object, or even a preceding action—anything that reminds you of the habit you’re trying to form. For example, if you leave your workout clothes on your bedside table at night, you’ll see those clothes as soon as you wake up, which will remind you to exercise.
- Piggyback. Another way to build a habit is to piggyback on your existing habits. If you typically go to the same coffee shop on Saturdays, hit the gym on the way there. If you take the train for 30 minutes to get to work, use those 30 minutes to take your online course. Adding an extra step to your existing routine is much easier than creating a whole new routine to accommodate a change.
- Rewards. It may seem obvious, but many people forget to give themselves both short-term and long-term rewards for doing something regularly. Plan a treat for yourself after one week, two weeks, a month, and six weeks, and you’ll find it much easier to motivate yourself to maintain your new habit.
- Meaning. The final (and perhaps most important) tip for building a habit is connecting your habit to greater personalized meaning. Why are you taking this action every day or every week? What will it feel like to be healthier or more confident or more adept at a skill? Reminding yourself of the reason you’re putting in all this work is crucial to keeping yourself motivated—and it may even help you perform your habit better.
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If all of that sounds like a lot of work you haven’t done yet, don’t worry! Preparing for change is just as important as the change itself. It’s fine (and maybe even optimal) to take a week or two before committing to a whole new habit. That way, you can prepare yourself and your environment so that you are perfectly prepared to take on the new year—on January 20th.