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New Year’s Resolutions: The Science Behind Forming Healthy Habits

It’s the first week of January and we all know what that means: New Year’s resolutions! People are quick to hop on the “new year, new you” trend, but New Year’s resolutions are perhaps best known for one thing — lack of follow-through.

It can be easy to beat yourself up after years of failed New Year’s resolutions, but there may be more to it than lack of motivation. New Year’s resolutions are nothing more than creating new habits, but creating new habits requires you to retrain your brain, which is no simple task. 

So, what are habits? Why is it so hard to break bad habits, and more importantly, why is it even harder to create new healthy habits?

How habits work

The first step to understanding habits is to understand the difference between habits and decisions. Decisions are made in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. When those decisions become automatic behaviors, or habits, the prefrontal cortex essentially “goes to sleep.” Habit-making behaviors are then controlled by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a role in emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Because habits are controlled by a different part of the brain, they operate differently than decisions.

Have you ever driven home from work, pulled into your driveway and thought, “How did I even get here?” Sometimes, when behaviors become repetitive, like your morning commute or brushing your teeth, you’ll notice that your brain switches to autopilot while performing those tasks. That’s how habits work.

So, how do you turn a decision into a habit?

Habits start with psychological patterns called “habit loops” which consist of a trigger, the behavior itself, and the reward. Repeating a habit loop consistently over an extended period of time reinforces the new behavior until it becomes habitual.

Step 1: Trigger

The trigger signals that it’s time to practice your new habit. The easiest way to set a regular trigger is to set an alarm on your phone. If your new healthy habit is to drink more water throughout the day, set an alarm to go off every hour to remind you. It’s important to set these alarms during times when you can actually follow through on your new habit.

New habits can also be triggered by existing habits. Let’s say your new habit is to walk every morning. You already get up early to get the paper, so going outside to get the paper can be the trigger for your new habit: going for your walk.

Step 2: Behavior

The behavior is simply the new habit you’d like to adopt. The behavior should immediately follow the trigger, and should happen around the same time every day or throughout the day at consistent intervals. This will help your brain adapt to a schedule that includes your new habit.

Step 3: Reward

Each time you successfully complete your new habit, there should be a reward. It might sound insignificant, but one of the best rewards is positive self-talk. Celebrate following through on your new habit and take a moment to appreciate your progress.

You can also set a bigger reward, like a special treat, for a designated period of consecutive days of completing your new habit. You could set a goal for 30 days of your new habit and give yourself a reward at the end of the 30 days. Just make sure your reward doesn’t derail the progress you’ve made with your new habit.

Tips for forming healthy habits

New Year’s resolutions are often centered around goals like losing weight, spending more time with family, eating healthier or running your first half marathon. While setting goals is a great start, we often bite off more than we can chew and fail to set a clear action plan to achieve those goals. That’s where habits come in. Here are a few tips to help you set a New Year’s resolution you can stick to.

  • Set a SMART goal. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and time-bound. For example, rather than setting a goal of losing weight, set a goal to lose a realistic number of pounds within a specific period of time. SMART goals give you a clear idea of what you need to accomplish and help keep you accountable towards your progress.
  • Prioritize your goals. There may be more than one area you want to work on this year, but setting multiple goals at once can be overwhelming. Instead, focus on one goal at a time. Give yourself 30 to 60 days on each goal to ensure that it becomes a habit, before moving on to something else.
  • Start small. While it’s important to set your goal, it’s even more important to determine the small daily habits that will drive towards that goal. If your goal is to lose weight, your habits might be walking every morning, going to the gym after work, drinking water every hour and preparing healthy meals ahead of time. Start with one habit that drives towards your goal. Once you’ve mastered that habit, move on to the next one. Over the course of a year, these small habits will help you achieve a healthier lifestyle and reach your goal.
  • Don’t rely on motivation. If you wait until you feel motivated to form new healthy habits, you never will. Forming new habits goes against what feels natural, so you probably will not feel motivated in the beginning. Instead, be determined to stick with your commitment. You can’t choose if you feel motivated, but you can choose to be determined. Without consistency, those healthy decisions will never become habits. So, stick with it!

If you’ve tried year after year to stick with a New Year’s resolution, but just can’t seem to make those resolutions stick, you may be going about it in the wrong way. Remember to start small and give yourself time to turn your new healthy choices into habits.

Health is a lifelong journey. If you make mistakes, it’s okay! Keep working on your new habits and commit to making 2018 your healthiest year yet.

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