The turning of the year is traditionally a time to say farewell to the old and welcome the new. It's a time we often reflect on habits or patterns in our lives that we could let go of or incorporate. But how do we give ourselves the best chance of turning our resolution into a habit, something we do regularly, almost without thinking about it?
1. Reframe your approach
Personally, I’m not a fan of 'resolutions' (and just not because I’ve made and broken so many!) - simply because the very word implies an inflexibility that is often associated with one of two outcomes - success or failure. And whatever your resolution - whether it's a healthy diet, exercise plan, giving up smoking, practising yoga every day and so on, if we slip up once, it's very common just to label that as 'failure' and give up altogether.
Instead, why not think of these changes as intentions - something to work towards with kindness, compassion and acknowledgement that we’re human and may sometimes trip and fall but that if we keep trying then we won’t ‘fail’.
Instead, think of these changes as intentions - something to work towards with kindness, compassion and acknowledgement that we’re human and may sometimes trip and fall?
2. Know your numbers!
You may have heard that it takes 21 days of doing something repetitively to make a habit stick … if only this were true! It seems that this magic figure originally came from a book written by Dr Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon turned psychologist, who observed that “following plastic surgery, it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face.” Like many pieces of information bandied around on the internet, this observation has, over the years, snowballed into an oft-repeated ‘fact’ ... unfortunately, though it’s far from it.
3. Take it one day at a time
In a study conducted by University College, London in 2010, it was found that it took, on average, more like 66 days for a habit to form. Note the words ‘on average’ here - for one participant of the study it took much, much longer than this. In short, it’s probably best not to put too much emphasis on numbers - we’re all different and, depending on our circumstances or the habit we are trying to form, the time taken to form a habit will differ for every individual. The best advice is to take it one day at a time: every journey starts with a single step.
4. Choose consistency over perfection
The researchers also find that “missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, try not to beat yourself up if you 'fall off the wagon' - habit-building isn’t an all or nothing task - it's an ongoing process.
Habit-building isn’t an all or nothing task - it's an ongoing process.
Changing behaviour so that it becomes part of your daily life isn’t supposed to be easy: if that were the case over a third of those who signed up for a gym membership would still be going after the end of January, rather than cancelling their membership! So if you slip up, all is not lost! Perhaps it's more helpful to think: consistency rather than perfection.
5. Start small
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big when it comes making a habit it’s more helpful to break it down into manageable, achievable parts. Say, for example, you decided you wanted to practise yoga or go for a walk every day, start small. Begin with ten minutes a day for the first week and slowly build that time up*. If you set yourself too huge a goal in the first place, sooner or later you’re likely to trip up and become so disillusioned that you give up altogether (back to that success or failure thing again!)
*Even if you don’t increase the time you spend on your new habit, remember that doing something is better than doing nothing at all!
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6. Reduce decision time
It’s easier to incorporate something new into our lives if we don’t have to change a lot of other things to make room for it. I practice yoga in the morning for that very reason. I have my mat laid out the night before (and if I’m doing an online class, the class is set up on my laptop). I don’t have to change my clothes because I practise in my pj’s. In fact, I don’t have to make any decisions - other than the decision to get up a bit earlier and practise. (Don’t get me wrong, in the middle of winter, even that decision compared to staying in bed, is a tough one!) But my point is, if you reduce the chain of events and number of decisions that need to happen beforehand, it definitely makes incorporating that new habit a little easier.
7. Don’t lose sight of your intention
It’s easy to get lost in the trees, but don’t forget about the wood! Remember why it is you’re making this change and remind yourself regularly what the benefits are. Reading books, articles or inspirational blogs on the subject, writing your own reminders down or even creating a mantra based on the theme of your overall intention to motivate yourself can all help to keep you focused on the bigger picture.
Good luck! We wish you a happy, healthy and kind New Year!
n.b. This article, originally published in 2015, has been updated.