This time of year can be a great time to kick off some significant growth in one’s life. So how are you doing so far with your New Year’s resolutions? Congratulations on any success you have achieved thus far! Many people get off to a great start because the energy and motivation is high at the beginning of the year. But then after a few weeks, they find themselves struggling to keep up the momentum. Why is that? What can you do to make the most of this year’s resolutions? How can you ensure the most long term success to your resolutions for change? There’s really a lot to unpack here. I am going to try going at this at a high level and save the deeper dive for another blog or two.
Let’s start out by talking about the idea of change. It is human nature is to resist change. We like routine and we like to know we what can count on. Many of our habits both good and bad are automatic and we do them without having to think about them. In order to wire our brain for new habits it takes time and effort. No duh, right? If it were easy we’d all just change things tomorrow and move on. So, with that in mind our brain has a limited capacity to rewire new habits at any one given time. The ideal wisdom is to change only one habit at a time to maximize our capability for success. That said it is possible to do more than one but I believe that like everything else in psychology it depends. More on that in a bit.
Now let’s look at the length of time it takes to develop a new habit. Since the 1960’s the conventional wisdom has been 21 days to create a new habit. This was based on the work of Maxwell Maltz and a subsequent book he wrote on the matter called Psycho-Cybernetics. The problem was that Maltz initially wrote that it takes a minimum of 21 days and unfortunately that ended up turning into the conventional wisdom that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. This belief permeated the modern self-help movement until just a few years ago. In 2009, a study of 96 people published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found that it took on average 66 days to form a new habit, such as eating fruit at lunch or running for 15 minutes a day. In fact, the study showed a range of 18-254 days depending on the habit. Additionally, the study showed that the first several days of repetition were more critical. Missing a day here or there later on was less impactful as long as they didn’t let the missed day become a regular pattern. Also of importance are the findings that some folks had more difficulty with some of their new habit formation suggesting that some people might be more ”habit resistant” as well as that some habits may be more difficult than others to establish.
This new study helps formulate more realistic expectations. Additionally, there are some other factors to keep in mind. As mentioned in the study, it is important to consider how difficult the new habit may be for you to incorporate. Are you trying something that you enjoy but don’t do anymore or is it something that you really don’t like or want to do? Perhaps some significant life changes or a medically necessary issue has come up pushing for you to change? Even with a strong life changing motivation if the habit is something that you would otherwise not be changing, it can be quite challenging as time goes on. The more mental and/or emotional resistance you have about the new habit, the more likely that it could take longer to incorporate. Remember, 18-254 days. As mentioned earlier…it depends.
Another important consideration is how specific is your resolution? Is it something vague like you want to be healthier, reduce stress, or make better decisions? The more specific you are about how you are “going to be healthier” or have “less stress” etc. the more likely you will be to have success. The best thing to do is to break down the category into smaller pieces. For instance, if being healthier is the goal what does that mean? Eating healthier? Exercise more? Which one? Can you do both? The short answer is yes. However, break it down into smaller pieces and work on it a little at a time. As mentioned previously, the fewer things that you are trying to change the higher the possibility of success.
In the book Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, they talk about the important aspect of willpower being a finite daily resource. Self-regulation or the ability to manage our impulse control in one area of life affects our ability to do so in other areas of life. Consider a hard day of work where we may have had to stop ourselves from yelling at someone or walking out of a meeting (perhaps several times), getting stuck in traffic, and maybe finding out that our coworker just quit and they won’t be hiring their replacement so we get stuck with the extra work. A day like that would likely require us to exercise a great deal of willpower on impulse control in order to keep our job. That means that our motivation to go to the gym or eat healthier is going to be much lower than at the end of a less stressful day. Being emotionally charged in any given moment also reduces willpower. During highly emotional moments, our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain involved with executive decision making i.e. willpower) is typically offline thus reducing our ability to keep resolutions in that moment. If we have a habit to self soothe, such as eating sweets, that is often our go to during or right after highly charged emotional moments, then our resistance to make a healthy food choice at that moment will be doubly challenged. So after highly charged emotional times give yourself a few minutes for your prefrontal cortex to come back online. Once again, this will likely expend some willpower energy. So, cut yourself a break if after a long difficult day your capacity to resist that temptation is much more compromised or even nonexistent.
The most difficult new habits to change will take the most effort both mentally and emotionally. They will also take the most time to become automatic. Choosing to change more than one highly difficult habit at the same time is very unlikely to be successful. Choosing more than one less challenging habit is more likely to be successful. Start with easier ones and work your way towards the harder ones. This helps to build confidence and increase your willpower capacity as well as motivation to tackle the harder habits.
One last thing to consider is a resolution partner or two. Someone else who is making changes in their life. Maybe someone making the same change or in similar area. This strategy can be great for support, encouragement and some accountability. Schedule regular check-ins (weekly is ideal) that are supportive in nature. These should be encouraging and NOT about putting each other down or giving each other a hard time. The idea of having to report in to someone else encourages personal accountability. In a future blog, I will break down an accountability strategy that can be both challenging and supportive. For now, similar to the holiday stress partner idea suggested in a previous blog, just listen and be supportive. Allow equal time for support so all parties get what they need.
So, what do you do now if you’ve started on this long list of things to change for 2019 and you’ve got a lot invested already in making all of these great changes? Break the harder ones down into smaller steps so that incremental progress can lead to more long term gains. Focus on the easier habits to change first and pick only one or two to be the focus of your energy. If you miss some of the other ones here and there for the first 2-3 months of 2019, let it go. Keep the top one or two resolutions as a firm commitment and save the rest to firmly focus on ONLY after your top one or two have become automatic and effortless. In the meantime, if you also happen to get a couple more new habits incorporated then great! Celebrate those successes as well. If not, then just go down your list and restart or resume the next one or two on your list and use the momentum from your current successes to propel your forward.
Overall, be patient with yourself because change really is hard and now you may have a better idea why. Resistance to change is inevitable. It may take several weeks or a few months to come but it will at some point. Be gentle with yourself if you make a mistake, feel like giving up or even fall off of your plan. While New Year’s is a great time to make changes it is not the only time. We can decide at any point in our lives to change. It takes time energy, commitment and effort to make positive changes in our lives. No one does so without setbacks, or even failure. Now that you have refined your plan and increased your willpower capacity, you will be more successful not just for a few days, weeks, or months; but for the whole year.
As mentioned at the beginning, this is a topic in which we can take a much deeper dive. Change is difficult but not impossible. There can be many layers involved with trying to make a change. In future blogs we’ll dig in to both more detailed strategies for creating change as well as how to start looking at and dealing with some of the blocks that can come up along the way. For now, Happy New Year! Stay strong, be patient, believe in yourself, and hang in there. You CAN make the changes you want in your life!!