Your Resolution: The Psychology of Habit Formation

“New Year, new me,” or so the expression goes. You’ve made a resolution and this time you’ve sworn to see it through. But as the new semester starts and the assignments start rolling in, that today’s the day mentality starts to turn into I’ll start tomorrow. There’s no shame in not achieving your New Year’s resolution. In fact, you’re probably not alone. A recent public survey found that only an approximate 40% of adults complete their New Year’s resolutions. But what if I told you that there was an easier way to achieve your goals and make that resolution of yours a reality? With a little help and understanding of the psychology of habit formation, this could very well be.

Like many motivated individuals, you’ve probably decided to go all out in the pursuit of achieving your New Year’s resolution. I want to quit smoking, so I’ll go cold turkey. I want to lose weight, so I’ll go to the gym seven days a week. I want to eat healthier, so I’m going vegetarian this year. Your resolve is certainly admirable, but not necessarily set up for success. Drastic changes in behaviour are not sustainable for long-term objectives because of lacking foundational habits. Quitting smoking is difficult if you’re used to smoking several times a day. Going to the gym seven days a week is difficult if you’re simply starting out of the blue. Eating a primarily vegetarian diet can be difficult if you haven’t done your research on what nutrients you need and haven’t planned out meals that are filling. If it is not a regular behaviour, you are more likely to return to your old habits.

Habits are defined as a settled tendency or practices in response to environmental cues. Habit formation is the process of replacing these certain behaviours with new ones. As many of us may know, developing new habits can be rather difficult. As the adage goes, you can’t teach old dogs new tricks … unless you have the patience for it. One of the first steps of habit formation is to be aware of the habit you are trying to replace. If you are a repeat offender of biting your nails, the first step is to realize when you are biting them. These bad habits occur often mindlessly, so to recognize and acknowledge these actions will be the first steps to habit formation.

“But it’s hard!” may be a complaint that you have. Changing habits has a tendency to be so. This is where step two comes in. Initiate reminders to help motivate you to stick with your new habit. If you want to go to the gym first thing in the morning, set an alarm. If you’re prone to snoozing, set multiple alarms. Pack your gym bag the night before and place it directly across from you so that in the morning it’s the first thing you see. Set your coffee maker to automatic and start your day with a good old Cup o’ Joe. Put your sneakers directly by the door. Develop your environment so that it is a constant reminder of your goal and leave yourself no excuse to break the habit.

This being said, it’s important to do this in stages. There is a difference between training yourself into go into the gym more frequently and forcing yourself to go seven days a week. This is the easiest way to burn yourself out, and the fastest way to disturb habit formation. Going all out for the first week will most likely see you relapse into your old ways because you have failed to establish a habit. You are going to the gym with a feeling of reluctance, not because you have trained yourself to want to go. If you develop a habit over time, the likelihood that you will relapse to old habits is significantly less and will help you achieve your goal in the long run. It is better to teach yourself to go to the gym twice a week for an entire year than it is to go everyday for the first two weeks of January.

The last step is to actually have a goal. Many of us start the New Year by saying that want to lose weight. But how much weight, and by when? You want to quit smoking, but by when? Having an actual goal in mind will help with your overall levels of motivation over the year. By setting small goals to achieve over a longer period of time, you will feel rewarded each time a smaller goal is met. A resolution is a marathon, not a sprint.

With these things in mind, good luck in the New Year!