A new year, a new decade and many of us have set new resolutions.
About a third of us make New Year resolutions but only 8% of us keep them. Most fall off the wagon in the first month. So, if you are determined to make a change in 2020, what are the pitfalls to watch out for and how can you overcome them?
Here’s five tips to get you off to a good start.
1. “It’s marathon not a sprint” – Accept that habit building takes time
In the first flush of enthusiasm it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our new determination to change will be enough to propel us forward. But replacing an ingrained habit with a new one is tougher than that.
The habit we are trying to replace will have developed gradually overtime until it becomes something we do automatically without thinking, be that reaching for the chocolate, flopping down in front of the telly or checking our work emails during our time off. Replacing this with a new habit is not going to happen overnight.
It is often said that it takes 21 days to create a new habit, but research from University College London, shows that the length of time it takes varies according to the difficulty of the challenge. Research participants set themselves simple goals for new habits they wanted to create. For example, it took the research participant who resolved to eat a piece of fruit with lunch 40 days for this to become an automatic habit and it took the person who resolved to walk for 10 minutes after breakfast 50 days for this to become a habit.
2. “One small step” Make your habit so easy to achieve that is difficult to fail.
The second trap is setting overambitious goals. When we do this, we can be setting ourselves up to fail. When I decided to get fit and healthy after a lifetime of avoiding exercise, my immediate thought was to invest in a boot camp or personal trainer – I wanted fast results. When I watched others being pushed to their limits I realised that while this might work for some people, I was more likely to rebel against the person pushing me out of my comfort zone! Instead I was realistic about where I was starting from – zero, and focused on building a habit. My first aim was to simply make it a habit to get to the gym every weekday because once I was there, I would do something. Whatever that was, it would be good enough. I would joke “I’m going to the gym to move about a bit.” – And that was genuinely my goal. Over time I found myself doing more exercise while I was there, as what I had started with became easy and I eventually had the courage to try some classes. Once I’d started to get fit, my thoughts turned to my diet – why undermine this fitness by eating unhealthily? And to cut a long story short – I lost 3 stone through a combination of exercise and healthy eating. But it all started with the goal of “Getting to the gym and moving about a bit.”
3. Create short term rewards
The battle between the old habit and the new habit is essentially a battle between instant gratification and longer-term gratification. The bad habit we are trying to replace has become a habit because it delivers pleasure or relief which triggers dopamine in the brain. The old habit will have become automatic because it’s rewarding on some level, even if it is self-destructive on another. When we set about creating a new habit, we are depriving ourselves of these rewards and the benefits we hope to gain are likely to be some time coming. The runner’s high is a distant dream to those of us who are rolling off the couch and putting on running shoes for the first time. It is hard to stay motivated if the rewards are a long way off. So providing ourselves with a suitable immediate reward will help reinforce the new habit.
4. Anticipate and neutralise the barriers to success
We know it’s not all going to be plain sailing, so take some time upfront to identify the potential barriers to establishing the new habit. Planning is one of most powerful things we can do to give ourselves the best chance of success. If you are trying to lose weight remove temptation by not having cakes and biscuits in the house, having fewer or replacing them with alternatives for when cravings strike. Think about when the old automatic habit is likely to rear its head and what you can do to mitigate it; If you always buying sweets when you fill up at the garage, consider paying at the pump instead.
Do whatever you can to avoid the situation where you will have a debate with yourself about whether to do the new or the old. A client of mine who was pregnant wanted to get fit for the first time for herself and her baby’s sake and thought that swimming would be the best exercise. But she found the thought of going to the swimming pool after work a real turn off when it came to it, and she had lots of other things she needed to do instead. In the end she set her alarm a bit earlier in the morning and instead of getting up and getting in the shower. She got up, got in the car and drove to work, stopping off at the swimming pool on the way. She did a few lengths, had a shower and arrived at work more alert and refreshed than ever. This worked for her because she mentally replaced her automatic routine of getting in the shower, with getting in the shower at the swimming pool. She had also prepared by having everything set up so that she was off and out of the house before she had time to think about it. This was how she reduced the decision making element and built the new habit into her her morning routine.
5. Expect to slip up and pick yourself up as soon as you can
Research by MIT has shown that old habits become hardwired into a particular part of the brain. It is therefore almost inevitable that the old habit will rear its head. All or nothing thinking – “I’ve slipped up so I might as well give up” – is a huge trap when this happens. In this situation one step forward doesn’t have to be two steps back. The trick is to simply acknowledge that slip ups are inevitable and return to the new habit as soon as possible.
Even after we have replaced old habits with new, the old habit is not forgotten and can still be easily triggered. The danger here is complacency – because we have established our new habit we might think we have escaped the grip of the old one. You often see this with people who have lost lots of weight and maintained that weight loss only to gradual piled the pounds back on. Or people who manage to regain and maintain a work life balance only to revert to workaholic behaviours as a result of certain triggers. As Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
The key to being one of the 8% who manage to achieve the change they want, is to reframe your goal as creating a habit, start small and recognise that habits are developed in small increments one day at a time. Adopt the “less is more” approach by focusing on an immediate goal and make this as easy to achieve as possible. Planning and preparation is a key: Set yourself up for success by anticipating and mitigating as many barriers to success as you can. And recognise that failures along the way are an inevitable part of the journey, not the end.
Sally Sheen, MSc, Dip, FCIPD, MISPA is a leadership, stress and resilience coach, speaker, workshop leader and consultant. She supports individuals and organisations to achieve their goals