How to Make a Good New Year's Resolution

How many New Year's resolutions have you made in your life? 20? 30? How many have you successfully accomplished? Probably less than 10% if you are human (I know, there are machines reading this post). There is no shortage advice out there on how to stick to your resolution this time 'round, so I will keep mine short and sweet. Use science.

There are two primary lines of brain and behavior science that influence New Year's resolutions: The science of habits and the science of self-stories.

Let's start with the science of habits.

A lot of New Year's resolutions have to do with changing or eliminating old, bad habits and creating new, better ones. If your resolutions are like most and involve vows to eat healthier, exercise more, drink less, quit smoking, text less, less screen time or any number of other automatic, recurring behaviors or actions, then we are talking about changing existing habits or making new habits. Habits are automatic, or conditioned responses. You get up in the morning, put on your clothes, drink some coffee and go to work. You go home at the end of the work day and plop down in front of the TV.  Here's what you need to know about the science of changing existing habits or making new ones:

Contrary to common belief, it's not hard to change habits if you use science as a tool.

To change an existing habit you essentially have to create a new one, so whether you are changing an existing habit or creating a new one, the "scientific" method for doing so is the same.

You have already created so many habits you don't even remember how they got started, so creating habits obviously isn't that hard or you wouldn't have been able to create so many of them.To create a new habit you have to follow these three steps:

Pick a small action or task. "Get more exercise" is not small. "Eat healthier" is not small. This is a main reason why New Year's resolutions don't work. People forget about the idea o baby steps and try to go too big. Think small. For example, instead of "Get more exercise" choose "Walk 2 miles today instead of 1" or "Take the stairs every morning not the elevator", or "Have a smoothie in the morning, not a bagel". These are relatively small small tasks.

Attach a new action to a previous habit. Figure out a habit you already have that is well established, for example, if you already go for a brisk walk 3 times a week, then adding on 10 more minutes to the existing walk connects the new habit to an existing one. The existing habit "Go for walk" now becomes the "cue" for the new habit: "Walk 10 more minutes." Your new "stimulus-response" is Go For Walk (Stimulus) followed by "Add 1/2 mile." Your existing habit of "walk through door at office" can now become the "cue" or stimulus for the new habit of "walk up a flight of stairs." Your existing habit of "Walk into the kitchen in the morning" can now be the stimulus for the new habit of "Make a smoothie."

Make the new action easy to do for at least the first week. Give yourself a chance. Because you are trying to establish a conditioned response, you need to practice the new habit from the existing stimulus from 3 to 7 times before it will "stick" on its own. To help you through this 3 to 7 times phase make it as easy as possible. Set a reminder in your phone that says "Walk 2 miles today". Set another reminder that says "Use the stairs today." Make sure you have ingredients for your breakfast smoothie ready to go in the fridge.

If you take these three steps and you practice them 3 to 7 days in a row your new habit will be established.

Now for the Science of self-routine.

The best (and some would say the only) way to get a large and long-term behavior change, is by changing your self-routine.

Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behavior. You have an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Essentially you have a "routine" operating about yourself at all times. These self-routines have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.

Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-routines. Most of this decision-making and choice-making based on self-routines happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions and choices that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a choice or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.

If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you'd better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join your local community band? Then you'll need a self-story where you are outgoing and musical.

Here is how routines editing can change behavior long-term:

  1. Write out your existing routine. Pay special attention to anything about the routine that goes against the new resolution you want to adopt. So if your goal is to learn how to be less stressed, then write out a story that is realistic, that shows that it's hard for you to de-stress, that  you tend to get overly involved in dramas at home or at work.
  2. Now rewrite the routine with a new narrative-- create a new self-routine. Describe the routine of the new way of being. Tell the story or routine of the person who appreciates life, and takes time to take care of him/her-self.

Routine-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But research shows that one re-written self-routine can make all the difference.

I've tried both of these techniques -- creating new habits using the 3-step method, and creating a new self-routine -- and they work. The research shows they work, and my own experience shows they work. Give it a try. What have you got to lose? This year use science to create and stick to your New Year's resolutions.





Shape up With Family-friendly Fitness

The mere mention of starting a family-wide fitness routine may send everyone running for cover. But incorporating more physical activity into your family life doesn’t have to be a painful and serious undertaking. Here are three family-friendly fitness moves to get fit and have fun -- together.

Get Hooping
Remember Hula-Hoops? As a kid, you’d twirl those giant plastic rings on your waist, wrists and ankles until you just couldn’t do it anymore. Well, they’ve resurfaced as a hot exercise trend, with hooping classes springing up in gyms across the country. Hooping offers a great workout: It strengthens your core muscles, boosts your balance, and according to the Mayo Clinic, offers a great aerobic workout when you keep it up for 10 minutes.

You don’t even have to take a class to reap the benefits. Numerous DVDs provide a routine (and a soundtrack). You can also create your own. Just buy everyone a hoop (each hoop should reach from the floor to between the user’s waist and chest, according to the American Council of Exercise), crank up your favorite dance music, and have a group twirl-a-thon in the basement or family room. You’ll all have such a blast you won’t even realize you’re exercising.

Hit the Floor
You used to go to dance clubs, but that fell by the wayside when you had a family. Pick it back up by holding regular dance parties at home. Teens may be too embarrassed to join in, but younger kids will love it. Like hooping, vigorous dancing (e.g., salsa, hip-hop or belly dancing) gives you an aerobic workout -- about as much as jogging or cycling. It also improves balance, posture, endurance and flexibility. Step it up a notch and try Zumba, a Brazilian dance-fitness program taught in gyms and dance studios. DVDs and video games can also teach you the moves at home. Note: Zumba’s got some pretty sexy steps, so you may want to make this a girls-only activity!

Go Ahead and Jump
Prizefighters do it to build strength; kids do it to have fun. That combo makes jumping rope an ideal family fitness activity. Jumping rope for 10 minutes offers the same cardio benefit as jogging an eight-minute mile. It also builds bone-mineral density, muscle endurance and coordination. Ropes cost less than $20; buy at least one for every two family members so you can pair off for team competitions. There’s nothing like a little family-friendly fitness rivalry to keep you motivated!


Fall Cleaning 101

Back-to-school is a season for fresh starts -- and that includes your home. At the first signs of spring, most of us open the windows and pull out the cleaning bucket for a full-on assault on dirt, dust and clutter. We should do the same at the start of fall, says cleaning expert Donna Smallin, author of Cleaning Plain and Simple and the One-Minute Cleaner. “Fall is when you’re going to be closing the windows and preparing to be cooped up for a few months -- and you want to be cooped in a clean house.”

Here are Smallin’s essential fall cleaning tips:

Detox the Bathroom
Now’s the time to bring out the heavy-duty cleaning products that remove layers of soap scum and mildew in the shower and tub. With the bathroom window open, spray the cleaners inside the shower door, on the walls, and on the tile ceiling. Then walk away for a few minutes.

While your shower virtually cleans itself, take stock of what’s in your medicine cabinet. Toss out any old or expired medicines, lotions and makeup. Medications and sunscreens have expiration dates on the bottom -- they usually have a shelf life of one or two years. Lotions last only a year. And to avoid contamination, you should replace eye makeup every six months.

Once you’re done, go back to the shower and tub and rinse with a hand-held shower nozzle. Or turn on the overhead showerhead and use a long-handled scrubbing wand to mop up the cleanser. Help keep things clean and fresh by using daily shower sprays.

Prep the Kitchen for Holiday Hosting
Two areas need special attention before the start of the holiday cooking and baking marathon: The outside of the cabinets and the inside of the fridge. Using paper towels or a clean dishcloth, rub wood cabinets with oil soap, and wipe knobs and pulls with straight vinegar. Completely empty the fridge and do a thorough cleaning with soapy dishwater or all-purpose spray cleaner. Take out the bins and wash in the sink with soapy water … but watch the temperature. Hot water can crack the plastic. Dry and line them with a paper towel before putting them back in.

Turn on the oven self-cleaner, and while it goes to work, drag the step stool over to the fridge. Armed with all-purpose cleaner and paper towels, scrub the top to get rid of built-up grime. Go through your pantry and gather up all the unopened food you know you won’t use to give to your local food pantry. (Anything you donate before the end of the year is a tax write-off, says Smallin.) While you’re at it, toss out any spices that have overstayed their welcome; check online for how long specific spices keep their potency.

Detail the Family Room

It’s time to face whatever’s lurking behind all your heavy furniture. Move everything away from the wall and wash the baseboards with oil soap. (The room will smell great!) Use a magic sponge to remove scuffmarks from the walls. Vacuum behind the curtains and between the cushions. And have your carpets professionally cleaned (or do it yourself) if it’s been a year or more.

Weather-proof Your Bedroom

Change out summer bedding and curtains for colder-weather ones. Wash everything before you store it for the season; dirty clothes can attract insects, according to Smallin. Bring out your fall and winter clothes, but before you put away your summer stuff, go through it carefully. Store only the things you loved wearing this past season, and donate the rest. And if you haven’t done it in the past year, clean the carpet -- including inside the closets.

De-bug the Fixtures

Last but not least: Take down your lighting fixtures and ceiling fans, and see what’s been living inside them all summer. Bugs and spiders love it up there (guaranteed you’ll find a web or two), so give your fixtures a good wiping and cleaning.

To Market, to Market

It’s a beautiful summer morning, the perfect time to pack up the kids and head to where farmers busily haul out their harvest. It’s a place where flaming red tomatoes tumble from crates, peppery basil perfumes the air and homemade jams and jellies beckon. Forget the two-hour trek to the country farm stand; we’re talking 10 minutes across town to your local farmers market.

At last count, there were approximately 4,700 markets bringing direct-from-the-farm produce, dairy, meats, preserves and baked goods made from scratch to cities and suburbs across the country -- more than double the number in 1994 when the USDA first started tracking the trend. “It’s great for consumers because they actually get to know the people who produce their food,” says Joan Shaffer, spokesperson for USDA Farmers Market Program. “And it’s great for small farms since it gives them another outlet for selling their goods and increasing their income.”

While fun, farmers markets aren’t always cheap. To make the most of your next trip, try these suggestions:

Make a flexible meal plan To minimize waste, have an idea of how many dinners you’ll be shopping for and what you may want to cook. But if you go in search of beets and find that the kale looks amazing, be willing to switch things up. “If your eyes are telling you something is good, they are probably right,” says John Adler, sous chef at Franny’s, a seasonal restaurant in Brooklyn that sources the majority of its produce from the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan.

Adler’s suggestion: Make a list of three or four specific items you’d like to buy, with room for one wild-card purchase. “That one surprise item you don’t know too much about is probably what will get you most excited and keep you coming back to the market.”

Bring the right stuff Take a strong hint form those flimsy plastic bags farmers offer: Most greenmarkets support sustainable farming practices, so you should follow suit by bringing your own sturdy, reusable bags. Keep in mind too that many farmers markets also sell fresh fish, poultry, meats and dairy products -- so stash a cooler in your car or bring along an insulated bag so you don’t have rush home.

Get there early and look around No need to wake at the crack of dawn, but the choicest stuff always goes first. By the end of a busy day, some vendors run out altogether. Do a walk-through before buying anything; it’ll give you an idea of what’s out there. As you walk around, don’t be shy about asking farmers for a sample of what they’re selling. Many stands may be selling great tomatoes, but you can only tell which are best for your needs by tasting them.

Learn to shop smart Farmers markets are about supporting small farms that, in general, embrace sustainable -- if not certified organic -- practices. That sometimes translates to steeper prices than at supermarkets. There are ways to save, however. Opt for foods in their least-processed form: whole heads of lettuce instead of prewashed, or unshelled peas and onions with their tops still on. You’ll pay less since there is less labor involved for the farmer. Produce at its seasonal peak, such as spring lettuce as opposed to early tomatoes, is also typically the best buy in the market.

Get to know the farmers If you don’t know what to do with kohlrabi, go ahead and ask. You’ll almost always walk away with a recipe. If you want to know if something is organic or not, start a conversation. “The beauty of a farmers market is that you can look across a table and ask a farmer how his crop was grown,” says Larry Johnson, market manager at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, Wis.

“It’s all about building a relationship with the farmers,” says Adler. “Getting to know them and showing a curiosity about what they’re selling -- it’s what makes them eager to help you and what will keep you coming back.”

Beat the Bedbug Epidemic

For many of us, the bedtime warning, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” was just a silly thing grown-ups said. Now it’s a real and rising threat in many parts of the country.

After more than 50 years of virtual elimination in the U.S., bedbugs have made a roaring comeback over the last decade, spreading most rapidly in the last six years, according to Richard Cooper, a research entomologist and vice president of The nocturnal feasters come out of the woodwork (literally), the mattress and the bedding to sink their teeth into sleeping humans and suck their blood. And they hitchhike on people from one location to another.

“Bedbugs don’t discriminate,” says Cooper. “They’re not a sign of poor hygiene, but people still say, ‘I wouldn’t get bed bugs.’ That attitude has fostered the spread.”

Once bedbugs settle into an environment, they’re very tough to stop. Bedbugs typically first install in sleeping areas, but they eventually move into closets, dressers, even behind picture frames. The key is to catch an infestation when it’s relatively new -- which is easier said than done.

In small numbers, bedbugs are hard to spot, and by the time you’ve got rows or clusters of itchy bites on your body, they’ve been making themselves at home in your house for months. By then, says Cooper, “they’re very difficult and very costly to control … too costly for many people. If you find them in the first few weeks, it would cost under $500. Later on, it would be $500 to $1,500, and sometimes more.”

To keep ahead of a possible infestation, Cooper recommends taking the following steps to stop bedbugs in your home:

1. Get educated.

Read up on bedbugs and how they spread. Know what the bites and the bugs look like.

2. Start snooping.

When was the last time you turned over your mattress and inspected the underside? Probably never. But that’s the first place you’re likely to find bugs.

3. Save a sample.

If you think you see a bedbug, grab it with tweezers and put it in a small container with rubbing alcohol. Or pick it up with clear tape, and tape it to a piece of paper. Before you spend money ridding your home of bedbugs, you want to make sure you actually have them.

4. Call the pros.

They can do what you can’t: treat your home and furnishings with a variety of techniques, including chemical sprays, targeted vacuuming, commercial steam-cleaning and structural heat processes. Make sure the company uses a multifaceted approach rather than just chemicals, warns Cooper, because bedbugs are becoming resistant.

5. Turn up the heat.

“Heat is the Achilles’ heel of bedbugs,” says Cooper, so wash your clothes in hot water whenever possible, and dry them on high.

6. Invest in gear.

There are a number of products that can limit the access of bedbugs to your sleeping areas, including mattress encasements and the ClimbUp Interceptor, which keeps bugs from scaling your furniture legs.

It may take awhile to complete treatment to stop bedbugs, but once you’ve made it for 60 days with no new bites, you can finally rest easy.