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:
- 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.
- 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.