New Year, Better Habits?

By Dianne Grande Ph.D.

“The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Socrates.

As the New Year rapidly approaches, many of us may be thinking about our resolutions for changes in our habits in hopes of improving our physical, emotional, or financial well being. The most common resolutions for 2018 in the US were: to eat healthier, to get more exercise, and to save more money (YouGov NY 2017 Poll). The goal of getting more sleep came in as a close fourth. However, year after year, the surveys show that most of us do not succeed in keeping those resolutions. That fact should not keep us from making them. A classic study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology (2002) indicated that those who set resolutions have more success in changing their behavior than those who don’t set any.  Not surprisingly, successful individuals use a number of strategies. Following are some tips borrowed from experts in the study of habit change.

1. Set a SMART goal.

The first step is to set a goal that meets 5 criteria, as first outlined by George Doran in the journal Management Review (1981).  

S= specific behavioral  goal; M= measurable change; A= attainable; R= relevant and important for you; and T= time-bound. For example, let’s say your resolution is to eat healthier. A sample SMART goal could be:  S= I will make a habit of eating healthier meals; M= I will eat at least one vegetarian meal per week; A= I can do this by planning meals in advance; R= This is one way to make my meals healthier and that is important to me; T= I will do this for 12 months and then evaluate my progress.

2. Immediately reward the new behavior.

After completing the new behavior the first time, give yourself a reward. For example, your goal is to go to the gym more often. A classic example of an effective reward is suggested by Charles Duhigg (2014):  treat yourself to a piece of chocolate immediately after the trip to the gym. This causes the brain to associate exercise with the reward of chocolate which usually provides a feel-good dopamine rush. After a couple of weeks, the exercise will bring its own rewards without the need for the chocolate, or so the theory goes. Returning to our goal of eating healthier meals, maybe that vegetarian meal is the one you share with a friend. Hopefully, this would provide a positive association between eating healthy food and feeling content.

3. Be patient with yourself; don’t give up if the new habit takes a while to become routine.

If you’ve been buying into the common “wisdom” that it takes 30 days to set a new habit, it’s time to ditch that thought. According to psychologist James Clear (2018), “on average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic – 66 days to be exact.” According to one study, the range was from 18 days to 254 days for a new habit to be formed.

Don’t be critical of yourself if you haven’t been able to make the desired changes as soon as you thought you could. Along the same line, it’s okay to make mistakes and slip up. Just have a strategy for getting back into the new routine.

Even if your resolutions are more personal and complex, such as creating a wider circle of friends for yourself, the same guidelines apply. Think about the goal in SMART behavioral terms, quickly reward the steps that you take in the right direction, and don’t give up until you’ve given yourself a fair time frame to see results.  After all, what have you got to lose, other than some bad habits?

References

Clear, James. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Penguin Publishing Group.

Doran, G.T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T way to write management’s goals and objectives.” Management Review. AMA FORUM. 70 (11): 35-36.

Duhigg, Charles (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.

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