It’s the New Year. Gyms are full, salads are selling, and butts are stubbed out. And for most people, it’s going to last maybe a month before they’re back to eating Nicotine Cheesy Surprise on the couch. But you can make them stick, if you know how to get them to work.
Know the Neuroscience
Most New Year’s resolutions are tied to habits. Either you want to break one, or you want to develop a new one. But do you have any idea how habits form?
It seems to be an evolutionary trait: You do something the brain likes, and the brain makes you want to keep doing it, or you form a sort of muscle memory so you can do stuff on autopilot while the brain does something else. This is great if your brain likes exercise and eating right… but not all of us are quite so lucky.
The trick is to focus on habits. There are cues and rewards tied to any habit, and spotting them and changing them will help break that habit, or create new ones. For example, a common way to limit overeating is to drink a cup of unsweetened green tea at the end of every meal. It’s a cue that you’re done eating to your brain… and green tea is a natural appetite suppressant. It’s why a lot of smokers will be chewing sugar-free gum at work today, as well; they have to put something in their mouths, so it might as well not be on fire.
Do It Gradually
The basic problem with most New Year’s resolutions is that they require massive changes, right off the bat. Ask any smoker who’s tried to quit cold turkey or anybody who’s trying to go from couch to marathons right away; taking on too much too quickly tends to overwhelm you.
Instead, do it gradually; create small habits to augment or replace current ones, and use those as building blocks for larger habits. For example, you want to work out more, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk instead of taking the car, and so on. Get a few ten-minute exercise videos and do those consistently instead of trying to find an hour at the gym. It’s a lot easier to budget five extra minutes a day and work it into stuff you have to do anyway than it is to suddenly carve an hour out of your schedule.
Do Your Research
Part of the problem with resolutions, especially the more ambitious ones, is that you may have a goal, but aren’t sure how to attain it or are even going about it the wrong way. For example, if you want to lose weight, exercise is important, but it’s eating better and not eating so much that will slough off the pounds. So get a plan in place, which not only gives you something to follow… it gives you more places to put those cues.
Tracking data is important to changing habits, because it gives you an objective way to see how you’re doing and adjust accordingly. It’s also easier than ever; whether you want to count calories or trim budgets, there are dozens of free apps and websites that do just that. Just make a point of looking at the data regularly, so you know what direction you’re headed and why.
Another useful tool, especially for financial goals, is automation. If you want to pay off some credit card debt, just automate a payment every month on the same day and budget accordingly. Even something as basic as setting up a 401(k) at work and having them take a percentage of your paycheck will let you meet a goal without forgetting and will offer steady progress.
Recruit A Buddy
Having a friend keeps you accountable and lets you share progress and support each other. Also, it helps to have somebody who knows what you’re going through.
And Finally, Cut Yourself Some Slack
Ambition is a good thing, but by the same token, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day at the gym or can’t deposit as much money in savings as you were hoping to. Life happens and you need to roll with it. Pull out the data and remember that you’re making progress in the long term, even if it doesn’t feel like it. It’ll go a long way towards sticking with it.