How to set and keep new year’s resolutions (or any new habits)
Have you repeatedly tried and failed to stick to a new year’s resolution (or any new habit)?
If so, and you finally want to crack that old habit, read on for my top four, neuroscience-backed tips on how to set, and keep, those new year’s resolutions and habits.
1) Create space and reduce stress
When you are creating any new habit you are creating a brand new neural pathway in your brain. This requires enormous amounts of energy and is the reason why, at the start of any change, we need to reduce something called ‘mental load’ ie. get less busy and ease the pressure on that brain of yours.
The part of your brain – the prefrontal cortex, which is concerned with creating new behaviours and habits, only has a certain amount of energy available at the beginning of every day, so in order do this new work you will need to do at least some, if not all, of the following:
- Clear the decks – let go of some stuff, reduce your workload, social life – whatever is taking up your brain energy.
- Get decent amounts of sleep.
- Exercise – it gives more oxygen to the brain and reduces stress.
- Good nutrition – especially omega 3’s to create the protective, strengthening layer (the myelin sheath) around any neural pathways.
- Perform new actions in the morning or after a break.
2) Get very clear on the benefits of doing it and the cost of not
Because our brains are hard-wired for pleasure and to avoid pain, you absolutely need to get clear on the upside of this change (positive association). You also need to steer clear of any discomfort or pains of doing it.
- List the benefits and stick them up somewhere/create a vision board of what your life will look like as a result of this new habit.
- Regularly reward yourself for performing the desired actions (positive reinforcement). If the habit itself doesn’t bring natural rewards, add in an extra feel-good reward – such as putting your feet up and reading your favourite magazine.
- Get clear on the drawbacks of not going through this change – what it will cost you if you, for example, don’t quit smoking – ie. you may not be around to see your kids grow up – it could cost you your life.
3) Change gradually, in small steps
Our brains need any new habit to be as non-scary and familiar as possible - otherwise we go into fight /flight/freeze mode and then go back to our old way of being (good or bad).
We, therefore, need to implement any change or new habit in as small and regular steps as possible and stick to a familiar routine.
For example, when starting a new exercise routine, it is much better to start with 15 minutes of running every day versus aiming for four to five hour long runs a week. It is also ideal to keep the situation or location as similar as possible – so do it at the same time and place etc – to give your brain that feeling of familiarity and safety that it needs.
4) Allow time and be patient
Because it takes time for any new habit to be ‘embedded’ – ie. that neural pathway to be repeated and strengthened, it takes time. You will also be replacing a very well-trodden old behaviour of maybe 40/50 years – so again, this all takes time.
- Allow for this, and be patient, and give yourself all the help you can. Create a system where this change is being supported and rewarded for at least three months – consistently.
- Schedule and monitor – same day and time is best as before, fitbits, trackers, apps with rewards along the way – these are all great at helping you keep on track.
- Be accountable – publicly via social media, or on a smaller scale within a group if that works for you, buddy up with a friend or someone else wanting to achieve the same thing as you.
- And if you do all of this, yet still feel blocked by something you just can’t easily identify, and this change is really important to you - then get some personal support – coaching, therapy, group therapy – whatever it is you need to make this permanent change in your life.
That’s it – all you need to do now is do it. So clear the decks, and take that first (small, manageable) step.
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About Sue Belton
Sue Belton works with people who feel unsatisfied with their lives and careers. She helps them get clarity about what will make them truly happy and fulfilled and then helps them create more meaningful lives. Sue has been working as a life coach for ten years.