Holding on to that New Year’s Resolution till 2024? Well here’s a pro tip… don’t. Writer Liz Connor explains why.
Drink less. Exercise more. Lose weight. When January rolls around, many of us resolve to shake off our bad habits and commit to a healthier lifestyle.
But for all of our good intentions, few of us actually end up sticking to our New Year resolutions. In fact, as many as 80% of us end up abandoning them by February.
While the start of the year might feel like a natural time to take on a health kick, psychologists say that making big changes in January can put us at a major disadvantage. Not only is it cold and dark outside, but the gym is busier than ever and many of us are battling an overflowing inbox.
If you really want to commit to a better version of yourself, habit-setting experts say that you shouldn’t wait until the New Year to get started on self-improvement. By nixing the artificial starting point, we can set ourselves up for long-term success.
Forming a new habit is hard, especially in the beginning stages. According to James Clear, author of the bestselling book Atomic Habits, the process of building a habit can be split into four simple steps: cue, craving, response and reward.
“This pattern is the backbone of every habit, and your brain runs through these four steps in the same order each time,” says Clear.
Every habit starts with a cue. “The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behaviour. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward.” This could be seeing your gym kit hanging by the front door, or spotting a bunch of healthy ingredients in the fridge.
Cravings are the next step; the crucial building block that we often neglect. Having a desire to complete a behaviour is an important part of crystallising a good habit. “Without some level of motivation or desire - without craving a change - we have no reason to act,” says Clear.
The third stage - the response - is a habit in action, such as doing a 30-minute workout or reading 10 pages of a book. “If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won’t do it,” warns Clear.
Lastly, we get to enjoy the rewards; the prize for completing a habit. “We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: they satisfy us and they teach us,” notes Clear.
To cement any behaviour into a habit, we need to tick off all four stages of the habit loop, in the right order.
Humans are estimated to have around 6,000 thoughts each day. “What’s disconcerting is that over 80% of these thoughts are negative,” says mindset coach Dr Maurice Duffy.
Duffy has spent decades working with elite sportspeople, including Olympic athletes and Premiership football players. “Our critical voice has a tendency to deter us from painful experiences. If we know we’re starting a fitness challenge in January, our psyche will remind us that the process is going to be difficult and that we might fail.
“The more time you allow yourself with that mental resistance, the harder it will be to get started. As a coach, working towards training goals involves a combination of visualisation techniques, mental redirection, meditation and affirmation. In this way, performance is just as much about mindset as it is about skill and practice.”
Setting an intention is important too. Without it, our motivation can wax and wane, especially if we delay starting. “Our resolutions fail for a specific number of reasons, but most importantly because we don’t have a plan in place,” says Duffy.
“We tell ourselves that we have the intention of achieving a goal, without strategically looking at how we can get there or the roadblocks that are in place.” When you put a broad resolution off as a vague future problem, it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re aiming for.
Let’s not forget too that building habits takes a lot of time - more than two months to be exact. Popular thinking suggests it takes 21 days to set a new habit, but recent research discredited this theory.
“The 21 days rule originated from a plastic surgeon who said it takes people 21 days to get used to a new limb,” says Phillipa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London. “Somewhere along the line this information was taken out of context. This is totally different from the science of forming habits.”
In 2012, Lally and her research team published a game-changing paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology that looked into the theory. The researchers found that for the average person, it takes closer to 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic.
“Some people might take less time, while others will be more, but the key thing is that it’s not an overnight change,” says Lally.
Big changes can bring solid results, but a major lifestyle switch can also be really challenging to stick to. Lally recommends breaking up lofty resolutions into smaller, micro-habits in the run up to January.
“Habits get easier with each repetition” she adds. “When you’re working out, not only are you doing that habit, but you’re also working towards forming that habit. You get a double hit.” So if you’re looking to take on an intense shred in the New Year, just turning up to the gym and cycling through a few dumbbell exercises can start to build the habit loop in your brain.
“The theory of ‘Temptation Bundling’ can be useful too,” notes Lally. “This is when you link something that you want to do, with something that you think you should do.” This idea works particularly well in December, when you can reward yourself with a few drinks at the work Christmas party if you tick off a healthy habit during the day.
The one caveat? “The reward needs to be very immediate for our brains,” says Lally. “Saying, ‘If I go to the gym five times this week and then I can have a prize at the weekend’ is not going to help in making the habit automatic, so treat yourself to something enjoyable there and then.”
Words: Liz Connor
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