Every January, certain wellness buzzwords are inescapable. Words like “detox” and “dry January” and “mindfulness.” And as is so often the case with good intentions, legions of Americans trying to stick to healthy New Year’s resolutions feel overwhelmed and give up.
I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions. You can read more on that here and here. But if you feel it’s time to make a change, I want you to be successful.
There are three main reasons people give up on their resolutions. First, they aim too high. Second, they admit defeat the first time they fail. And third, they don’t know how to create a lasting habit. Here’s how to get over the hurdles to success.
Set Attainable Goals
Think about your goals. They’re probably fairly lofty and will take a lot of time and effort to achieve, right? For example, let’s say you want to lose 50 lbs. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know how hard it is just to lose 10 lbs. It might take more than a year to lose that amount of weight. It feels overwhelming, so why even start?
But what if you broke that down into a smaller, more easily achievable goal? Perhaps you start with losing five pounds. Or maybe you ignore the actual weight altogether and think instead about what it would take to lose weight. Maybe your goal is to walk for 30 minutes three times per week. Or you aim to cook dinner four times per week. Once you achieve that goal, you set another small goal. You continue to set, attain, and then reset goals.
When starting something new, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of what you’re trying to do. So shift your thinking to focus on what you can do.
Accept Failure as a Normal Part of Growth
Have you seen that commercial for a smoking cessation product that talks about how hard it is to stop smoking, “like quitting every Monday tough?” How many times have you heard someone say they’ll restart their diet on Monday because they ate junk food that day? Or how many times have you told yourself you’ll start exercising (again) on Monday or the first of the month?
It’s easy to view a setback as a sign that your goal wasn’t realistic. If it was easy to stick with a new habit, no one would ever quit.
But the truth is, humans are fallible. And that means we sometimes skip a day or two or exercise or we eat too much pizza or order takeout when we said we’d cook during the week.
But failure is ok. It’s even normal. What matters is how we react to failure. Do you give up on your goal of losing weight just because you ate a piece or cake? Or do you move on and get back to work?
Start New Habits that are Destined to Stick
There’s a common misconception that people who are successful at certain habits, for example exercising regularly or not bingeing on potato chips, have stronger willpower than others. But that’s not true. Those people just know how to set themselves up for success: make the habit pleasurable and remove any barriers to success. If you don’t enjoy actually performing your new habit, you’re not likely to continue doing it. So how can you make it enjoyable? If you want to walk every day, what would make that walk more enjoyable? Maybe there’s music or a podcast you could listen to. Or you set up a reward for when you accomplish your goal. Some people put a dollar in a jar each day that they exercise. When they hit 30 days, they use that movie to buy a new workout shirt or piece of exercise equipment.
And what are your barriers to success? For some, it’s simple being unable to decline something. If you’re trying to cut back on salty snacks, it’s not a good idea to buy a big bag of potato chips on your next grocery run. If you don’t have ready access to chips, then you’re not likely to eat them. There’s not reason to test your willpower. If you know you can’t resist something that you’re trying to cut back on or eliminate altogether, don’t bring it into your house or office.
Another barrier could be that the habit is not yet part of your routine. If you want to start exercising regularly, think about when in your day you could do that. If it fits best at the beginning of your day, get out your clothes and plan your workout the night before. If lunchtime workouts make the most sense, block off that time in your schedule to exercise.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to successfully start a new habit, I highly recommend listing to the Creatures of Habit episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast.