Every December, people resolve to become better versions of themselves in January. They’ll get in shape, get to bed on time, and swap reality TV for reading War and Peace.
Not surprisingly, a lot of this stops by February. That’s because long-term habit change is hard. After studying why some people succeed, I’ve come to see that there are only two real ways to make something stick. Plan your resolutions with these two realities in mind, though, and you can keep going, through to next December and likely past that, too.
First, for habit changes to work, people have to enjoy the habit (or feel pain without it). While we berate ourselves about broken New Year’s resolutions, most of us are quite capable of keeping habits. I know I’m on a decades-long streak of brushing my teeth daily and probably you are too. We eat daily, even though it’s quite possible to fast for twenty-four hours. It’s just that life feels a lot less pleasant when we skip these activities.
If I look at the long term habits I’ve stuck with, they tend to fall into this category: I enjoy them. I genuinely like running. Maybe it’s getting outdoors, maybe it’s the runner’s high, but I feel good during my runs and after. That makes it quite possible to keep running even in circumstances that might make for good excuses (e.g., four pregnancies). Likewise, I genuinely enjoy writing. While I get paid for a good chunk of what I churn out, I don’t get paid for keeping my blog. But I enjoy expressing my thoughts there, and trying ideas out, and I love the conversation with readers. So I’ve kept going, averaging about four posts per week for the past seven years.
I could note my running and blogging habits as evidence of my discipline. Yet every time I try to start other good habits—such as lifting weights—I fall off the wagon. I don’t like it as much as running. I’m a lot less consistent about writing in my journal than blogging, sometimes skipping whole years. There’s no conversation to keep me hooked. What might look to the outside like discipline is really about the pursuit of pleasure.
To be sure, we all need to be physically active. But rather than trying to will yourself into doing CrossFit if you hate CrossFit, find some activity you genuinely enjoy, like walking with friends, family members, or a dog. That’s a resolution you’re more likely to keep.
Second, for habit-changes to work, one's life has to support the habit.
Consider walking. Even if you hate it, here’s a way to make sure you walk briskly for twenty minutes daily: Live ten minutes from the train station that’s part of your daily commute. You’ll be hightailing it there five mornings a week, and probably strolling at a reasonable pace on the way home too if you live somewhere that can be cold or rainy. The best stair-climbing habit I ever had did not involve a Stairmaster. It happened when I lived in Washington, D.C., and had to take the Metro to Bethesda every morning where I’d catch a bus to Tyson’s Corner, VA. The escalator in the Bethesda station transverses several stories to reach ground level, and I was often running behind, so I sprinted up. Good for the glutes, if not on purpose.
Humans are pretty lazy. People keep habits when they are easier to keep than not keep. So if there’s something you’d genuinely like to make part of your life, figure out how it can become the default. If your work team usually orders in for lunch, find a restaurant that offers veggie-laden salads and make that your standing order. You have to actually call the restaurant to change the delivery option, and you’re too busy to bother. Result: you’ll eat a lot more vegetables.
Willpower is great, but it’s easier to keep a habit if you don’t need to rely on it. Want to stop checking email first thing in the morning? Don’t sleep with your smartphone in your room. It’s really as simple as that.
Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan