I’ve always been fascinated by friends and colleagues who approach me toward the end of a year and ask me how to make — and, more importantly, keep — a New Year’s resolution. Our culture seems to love new beginnings and self-improvement. I’m a big fan of looking at where we are now, where we want to be in the future and the path to get from here to there.
The best way to make a resolution and stick to it (or change any behavior) is not a secret. It’s not rocket science. It’s really about understanding the brain and the psychology of human behavior – particularly our own!
Here are some steps to help you change your own behavior and stick to your New Year’s resolution.
Step 1: Understand Your Motivation
What is your deepest driving desire? Does this resolution align with it? How so?
If your New Year’s resolution is to drop some weight (something I’m often asked about), “I want to look better in my clothes” is not a sufficient reason to change the way you eat. This reason probably won’t be stronger than your craving for chocolate chip cookies or potato chips at 10 p.m. You’ll be more motivated by a driving desire that ties into your health and well-being, your quality of life now and into the future or your relationship with others.
It often takes a life-threatening event to create this type of change, but it doesn’t have to. I have a friend who had a heart attack at 50 years old, when his daughter was 12. He had poor eating habits and was about 60 pounds overweight. His doctor explained to him that he was shortening his life. But he didn’t have a light-bulb moment until his wife asked him this: “Do you want to be there to walk our daughter down the aisle at her wedding?” That became his deepest driving desire. He improved his diet, started exercising, dropped the weight and is still sticking to his resolution to remain healthy five years into his journey.
Step 2: Sequence the New Behavior
Human behaviors do not occur in a vacuum; they occur in a context or a sequence. Too often when people want to add a task or new behavior to their day, they believe, “I can do that. I’ll just remember to do it.” But that’s not enough. It’s more effective to “chain” or “link” the new behavior in a sequence of established behaviors.
For example, if you want to start taking vitamins daily, sequence this new habit into a specific part of your day. Most people have self-care routines or sequences in the morning or evening. So you could decide that you will always take your vitamins between brushing and flossing, or between flossing and going to bed. The idea is you put the new behavior between two other behaviors that are well established to make it part of a routine.
Step 3: Remember the ‘Dead Human Rule’
When trying to change your own behavior, don’t ask yourself to do something that a dead human can do. This is really about framing your resolution in terms of action (the presence of a new behavior) instead of inaction (the absence of the old behavior.)
For example, if your New Year’s resolution is to quit smoking, you could frame the behavior as trying to “not smoke.” But a dead human can “not smoke.” So your resolution violates the Dead Human Rule. What works better? First, understand what smoking does for you. Is it about relaxing? Celebrating a job well done? Relieving boredom? Next, find a new habit to add to the sequence of behaviors that normally leads you to reach for a cigarette. Your resolution could be something like this: “When I feel bored, I will call a friend or take a walk instead of smoking.” By shifting your resolution from inaction to action, you’ve just increased your odds of sticking to it.
Step 4: Practice Self-Compassion
Changing behavior is hard! It is not like flipping a light switch. You will return to your old behaviors sometimes – especially in the beginning. Expect it. Don’t be so critical of yourself.
If you plan and prepare for stumbles, they won’t turn into free falls. If you slip up and have that cookie or a cigarette, start with a clean slate the next day or at the next opportunity.
Step 5: Find an Accountability Partner
Humans are social animals. There is A LOT of psychological research that proves that we do better, particularly at changing our own behaviors, when we make commitments to others to do so.
Share your resolutions with your friends and family. Share your resolutions on social media. Report and share your progress with the people you care most about and those who care most about you.
The best predictor of successfully changing a behavior and maintaining that change long term is number of attempts! Keep trying. Persistence overcomes resistance – even when you are the only obstacle standing in your way.
I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.
Let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!