It’s a new year, and people around the world are resolving to change their lives for the better. Nothing is more motivating than January 1, and whether joining a gym, focusing on finances, or losing weight, millions of us have set our intentions and are taking big, bold actions to make them happen. That is, until early February, when 36% of the well-intentioned have lost sight of their goals, and by June, 54% have returned to the comfort of their daily norms. If you were one of those who have made resolutions and set them aside, know that you are not alone. In a study conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Verv, the average respondent said they usually only keep their New Year’s resolution for 36 days, or a little more than a month.
Setting goals and making changes are not endeavors doomed to fail, but the secret sauce is not in our resolution, but in our habits. We are all creatures of habit – good and bad. Habits shape who we are, and by creating new, healthy habits, we can take the daily actions needed to reach our goals and make them part of our routine.
It’s hard to turn visions (aka resolutions) into daily actions because they’re usually so far outside of our normal activities, and oftentimes…huge. However, habits are automatic routines that already make up 40% of our daily activity, according to Dr. Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “Decision-making, our intentions, our thoughts, our commitment, they’re very important when we start to change…continuing over time took something very different,” said Dr. Wood on a recent episode of Hidden Brain.
“Habits are cognitive associations. They’re mental associations that we form when we repeat an action over and over again in a given context,” she added. “When you do that, you are learning very slowly and incrementally to associate that context with that behavior. So, the next time you’re in that context, the behavior automatically comes to mind.”
Stacking habits, or tying a new habit to an existing one, is a great way to associate context with behavior. Simply look for patterns – such as your morning routine – to weave in new habits. Meditate with your coffee, do squats while brushing your teeth, work in some crunches when putting on your socks and shoes, or even park at a distance or take the stairs when you are out and about. The key is to do your new task every day. British researchers found that the amount of time it took for a task to become an automatic habit ranged from 18 to 254 days, with the median time being 66 days.
While habits may feel like they take a long time to create, they do stick much better than your typical resolution. And now as we’re riding yet another Coronavirus wave, building healthy habits is more important than ever since many of our normal routines have yet to return. Your new habits don’t need to be limited to the big three resolutions either – losing weight, exercising more, and extreme financial fitness. In fact, while we’re still living in the midst of pandemic related uncertainties, it might be better to focus on a new list entirely. For example, it’s impossible to set a goal of going to the gym five days a week if the gym keeps opening and closing due to COVID. On the other hand, it’s much, much easier to stack kindness with your working/shopping/dining habits. Going out of your way to appreciate the front-line workers who are continuing to help the world go ‘round should already be your norm, as it should be to everyone you encounter, but to be on the safe side, add to it.
As Dr. Nancy pointed out, being kind and generous to others is essential, especially now in these uncertain times. In social media post, she said, “It’s amazing to me that we have to teach people about kindness, but we do. If you’re not showing empathy and kindness, you need to start. Showing kindness to others is the most important thing we can do each and every day.”
Kindness and a few new, healthy habits can serve as the foundation for 2022, and you can add to that foundation as you go. If you haven’t implemented any changes yet, don’t panic, you don’t need a new calendar year to embrace them. A 2014 study from researchers at Wharton found that while the start of the new year can be a landmark date for change, so can the start of the week. “It’s not like there’s something magical about Dec. 31,” Charles Duhigg, a former New York Times reporter and the author of The Power of Habit, said. “What is magical is our mind’s capacity to create new narratives for ourselves, and to look for events as an opportunity to change the narrative.”
Embrace the new year, the new week or even the new day, stack old habits with new, and make it a point to do what you can to lead a happier, healthier life, especially in times of uncertainty. Practice kindness, empathy, and keep growing, learning and trying new things. If we all wake up determined to face the day by putting our best selves forward, not only can we change our own lives, collectively we can change the world!