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Seems all too familiar? Year after year, we go through the gruelling process of assigning demanding tasks to ourselves — tasks that will take a lot out of us to come to fruition. Juggling our personal and professional lives is in itself pretty daunting. And yet year after year, we place ourselves under the scanner, adding many more burdens to the weight of expectations on our already-sagging shoulders. Let’s attempt to understand why this happens.
Why do we make New Year resolutions?
Research shows that out of the many who adopt new year resolutions, only 10% manage to stick to them for a few months. A body of research out of UPenn calls this the “fresh start effect”, stating that something like a new year, a new semester, a new month, or a birthday can kickstart new changes and behaviours.
The human race is engineered to try and do better; it’s because we are the apex predator; we’re on top of the food chain and evolution trains us to strive to protect that position. Club this evolutionary programming with the social pressures of doing ‘something worthwhile’, and we end up using a temporal landmark or placeholder like the New Year to usher in that motivation to be better. New Year becomes a strong anchor point for initiating self-improvement behaviour — what better day than the first day of the New Year?
Are New Year resolutions useful?
A resolution is essentially a promise that one makes to oneself about something that needs improving or changing. They are really all about the areas in your life that need your attention, which when given, will begin to add value to some aspect of your life. We believe that these are the very things that do not get our attention throughout the year, and that with a wider span of 365 days, we will be able to meet it.
Can New Year Resolutions be turned into a habit?
Yes! There is a certain method to achieving your resolutions. It’s not summoning copious amounts of motivation; rather it’s introducing small tweaks and slowly strengthening your habits.
A study by Duke University shows us that about 40% of our daily behaviors sum up to the habits we have. James Clear, in his new book Atomic Habits, explores an evidence-based strategy to develop habits. He refers to atomic habits, which are small wins that together form a larger system. The more you focus on tweaking the system to get small wins, the more motivated you will be to continue to do them. According to his suggested strategy, transforming a behaviour into a habit is possible if one follows the 3 R’s — which effectively is a cyclical process of converting something you want to achieve, into a habit.
The Reminder — Routine — Reward Process
- Reminder: This is a trigger or an event that can help you kickstart your habit. For eg, you want to avoid checking your phone after 10pm at night, to get better sleep. Going to bed is already something you presumably do every night, and your nightly going-to-bed ritual can act as a cue to signal that it will soon be time to disconnect from your phone
- Routine: This is the action you take, or the habit itself. Setting up a visual reminder 15 minutes before 10pm to put your phone away and taking out your favourite book instead, can be a way to consistently incorporate this new habit
- Reward: This is the benefit of executing the habit or the action you’ve taken. For eg., it is important to reward yourself with positive self-talk each time you practice your habit.
Let’s look at some important aspects of the psychology of habits:
- A resolution or habit should be something you want to do, because it is important to you. It can be good to pause and reflect, and write down why the change you are embarking upon is important for you to address
- Ask yourself what is your end state for this habit? What is your goal and how committed are you to achieving it? Without a fair amount of goal setting, habits can disappear pretty quickly
- Do a pulse check for how much you believe in yourself, as you set a goal for habit change. Even if you aren’t convinced that you can pull it off, taking those smaller steps will strengthen your conviction over time
- Involve other people who care about your habit, or may even have a similar goal, which allows you both to work together on the common goal. This can make the process of habit building fun, while also giving you the opportunity to connect with others over it
- Through this process, it can be crucial to stay curious and non-judgmental about your own process of habit building, rather than being too hard on yourself in those moments where you feel your habit is getting away from you. Ask yourself what you can learn from what worked and didn’t work for you, and implement these learnings in your self-improvement journey
Understanding what’s really needed for you to maintain a resolution, and breaking it down to small changes will empower you to follow them. However, you must also understand the reasons why you put off following one — it might require you to break them down too and transform that behaviour.
Finally, resolutions should be focused on things you really want to do, rather than feel you should do. If the change you want to create is driven by a belief that you are capable of change, or is in line with your values and the kind of person you want to be, this can help you use yourself as an instrument of change in your own life.
If you’re still worried you’re among the 90% who won’t live up to their New Year fitness resolutions, here are 10 tips coming straight from experts at cure.fit!
Credits — Dr Divya Kannan, Clinical Psychologist
James Clear (2018). Atomic Habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones.
Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, Jason Riis (2014) The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior. Journal of Management Science.
Nir Eyal (2014). Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. Random House.
Sam Thomas Davies (2014). Unhooked: How to break bad habits and form good ones that stick
Smith, K.S., & Graybiel, A.M. (2016). Habit formation. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 18 (1), 33–43.