As we welcome a new year, some of us may be considering the endless battle with New Year’s resolutions. About 80% of people abandon their resolutions within the first few months of starting. We know this is not due to will power, but because it is hard to create new habits and change old patterns. Moreover, the mere 20% of people who have accomplished New Year’s resolutions don’t necessarily feel happy or accomplished at the end of the year. Instead the resolutions have brought upon stress and pressure for months.
So how do we try and change habits and reduce the likelihood of failure? How do we do this without burning out? Here are a few strategies that can help.
1. Habit Formation
Think about the lack of effort it takes for you to drive your car, make a cup of coffee, or put on your makeup. These are tasks that require limited thought and effort today. However, consider the first time you ever learned these tasks. You went through endless hours of driver’s ed, botched up your first cup of coffee, and resembled a clown for many days until you got your makeup just right. The difficulty of mastering new skills are understood and accepted. This is the same empathy and patience I encourage you to keep with your New Year’s resolutions.
Whether your goal is to learn a new language, go to the gym more often, save money, or any other endeavour, it will require some effort at first. The consistency of practicing these skills is what will help you achieve success. You don’t have to think about the steps involved to brew a cup of coffee; the task is automatic. You repeat the same steps of getting up in the morning, shuffling over to your kitchen, and pouring in some coffee grinds over and over until the tasks became routine. Similarly, the more often you work on your New Year’s resolution in a consistent manner, the easier it will be for these patterns to become automatic. Consistency at the start is really important. I encourage working on a resolution at the same time of day, at the same location, and with the same steps.
With habituation, you don’t have to think about doing the task. It just becomes a part of your lifestyle: 6 AM is when you meditate, 4 PM is the time you practice Italian, and 7 PM is when you go for a run. These tasks may still require effort; however, the routine is set in place to increase success. You don’t think about it; you just do it.
2. Changing the All-or-Nothing perspective
One of the biggest factors that demotivate us from completing New Year’s resolutions is failure. When we’ve gone four days in a row of not smoking, it can be incredibly discouraging to break that flow with a cigarette on Day 5. However, addiction therapists can confirm that changing a long-term habit takes time and that relapses are normal. The American Cancer Society suggests that it will take, on average, 8-10 times of trying before an individual is able to finally be smoke-free for a year. If these individuals stopped after their first failed attempt, this level of success would never have been achieved.
Rather than seeing relapses as failure, we want to shift away from an all-or-nothing mindset. It is so easy to fall into a pit of shame and guilt when we have slip ups. However, relapses are incredibly helpful teaching opportunities. Each moment of relapses helps us learn about our vulnerabilities, and the patterns involved that made us go back to our old behaviours. We can learn and prepare for these moments.
Depending on your new year’s resolutions, having a relapse may be an indicator that you may benefit from having a strong support team. This might involve connecting with supportive friends for feedback and encouragement as you try once again. Or, it may involve returning to treatment (e.g. connecting with your physician, therapist, dietitian, whomever is part of your treatment team).
The beauty of relapses is gaining the confidence that you can return back to trying this new habit after a setback. Just because you have a drink, smoke a cigarette, or ditch the gym does not mean this is your life sentence. Success comes with increased confidence to return back to the work in creating a better lifestyle.
3. Check your environment
We are all triggered and motivated by our environment. When there is chocolate sitting next to us, we are more likely to reach for the chocolate. If the bed feels warm and toasty in the morning, we are more likely to sleep in than get up. We want to create the ideal environment that increases the likelihood of maintaining positive behaviours, and reduces negative behaviours.
Let’s say your resolution is to save more money this year. The first step in achieving this goal is to consider what your usual patterns are when it comes to spending money. When are you more likely to spend? When are you more likely to save? Let’s assume that you’re most likely to spend money after going on social media during your lunch hour. What would happen if you turned off your social media at this vulnerable time? Alternatively, what if you’re more likely to save after seeing your bank account. If this is the case, how do you ensure that you have easy access to your bank statement? This may involve looking at your statement weekly, or having a screenshot right next to your computer.
Consider setting up some deterrents for the behaviours that you are looking to reduce. If you have a harder time accessing a bag of chips (e.g. it’s on a higher shelf), you are less likely to reach for it. In the same way, you want to have access to things that will help you maintain your new habits. For example, if you’d like to exercise in the morning, you can place your workout clothes next to the side of your bed. You can have your work out mat and dumbbells ready for you in the living room to start right away. By setting up your environment effectively, you’re able to shift your behaviours and increase the likelihood of fulfilling your resolutions.
4. Pair with a reward
New year’s resolutions are hard, and we cannot rely on will power alone. This is why it’s important to pair our goals with a reward. Until that automatic behaviour is formed, it’s helpful to have rewards paired together with a new habit. These rewards can be anything that you love and are already motivated by. For example, let’s say you love tea. If your resolution is to meditate daily, pair this habit with the practice of drinking tea following your meditation. If this favourite tea can only be enjoyed after meditation, you are more likely to be motivated to follow through on the task. Another example is pairing exercise with watching TV or listening to your favourite podcast. You’re more likely to go for that run in order to catch up on some episodes.
5. Plan for the hard days
I don’t want you to get caught up in thinking of the worst case scenarios, or to focus on failure. However, it’s helpful to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. I know that, after an especially long day, I love watching terrible TV and eating all the carbs in my house. Normally, I’m fine with this and accept it as part of my self-care. However, if my New Year’s resolution involves healthier eating, I’m going to have to plan ahead for those tough days. This involves stepping back to consider how I want to manage in alternative ways. I will have to problem solve others options for self-care (e.g. reading, crafting, taking a bath). I can also ensure that I have healthier snacks available that satisfy my love for savoury foods. What will make you more likely to fall back on old patterns? What are alternative ways to handle this situation?
A Word of Caution
Truthfully, I am cautious about New Year’s resolutions. Some people love the idea of a fresh start to practice healthier habits. However, it’s important to recognize if following new year’s resolutions will actually exacerbate mental health struggles. Be kind and honest with yourself. If you struggle with body image, for example, then adding a resolution like increasing exercise, losing weight, or eating healthy may actually increase frustration, guilt, or inadequacy (especially when we know that setbacks are normal!) Rather than adding unnecessary stress, focus instead on some of the above strategies without a time frame or measurable markers of success. You don’t need these markers to deter you from making positive changes. It’s a lot easier to manage a goal of reading more often by just picking up a book. You don’t need to read a certain number of books within a certain time frame to pursue this new interest.
Let me know if your new year’s resolutions stick this time, or if you need support in working with these habits. I’d love to hear.
I hope 2021 brings you much happiness, comfort and good mental health!