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)?
To crack that old habit for good, read my 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’re creating any new habit you’re making 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 concerned with creating new behaviours and habits, the prefrontal cortex, only has a certain amount of energy available at the beginning of every day. In order to do this new work, you’ll need to do at least some, if not all, of the following:
- Clear the decks: let go of some of the things your mind is preoccupied with, reduce your workload, social life – whatever is taking up your brain energy.
- Sleep: ensure you get plenty of sleep to allow your body rest and relaxation.
- Exercise: exercising provides more oxygen to the brain, reducing your stress levels.
- Ensure good nutrition: good nutrition provides energy to the brain and encourages healthy cells, especially omega 3. Omega 3 creates a protective, strengthening layer (the myelin sheath) around any neural pathways protecting fibres in the nervous system.
- New actions: perform new actions in the morning or after a break so you are energised and motivated.
2) Be 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 visible or 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.
- Be 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 because 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’s much better to start with 15 minutes of running every day versus aiming for four to five hour long runs a week. It’s also ideal to keep the situation or location as similar as possible, so run 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
It takes time for any new habit to be ‘embedded’ because you are strengthening and repeating that neural pathway. You’ll also be replacing a very well-trodden old behaviour of maybe 40/50 years, so again, this all takes time and patience.
- Allow for this 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 your progress and assess whether there is a certain time of day that best suits your change. Fitbits, trackers, apps with rewards along the way can all help keep you on track.
- Be accountable either publicly via social media, or on a smaller scale within a group, whichever suits your style. Perhaps buddy up with a friend or someone else wanting to achieve the same thing as you to support one another.
- If you do all of this, yet still feel blocked by something you just can’t easily identify, then perhaps it may be time to get some personal support with either coaching, therapy or group therapy, whatever you feel comfortable with to help make this permanent change in your life.
That’s it, all you need to do now is do it. Clear the decks and take that first (small, manageable) step.