The first month of the new year can bring a burst of energy towards reframing or reorganizing our lives in specific ways. Often, this burst of motivation manifests as a commitment to a habit change (changing a problem behavior or adopting a positive behavior, i.e. making more time for family, traveling more, or making more healthful choices with our food or exercise routine). The new year gives us the opportunity to get in touch with our ideal vision of ourselves, and make choices accordingly.
However, we often don’t frame it as an opportunity to get in touch with our ideal selves, and it shows. A survey published by Inc. for 2019 indicates that this year’s top resolutions include dieting, losing weight, saving more money, quitting smoking, and learning a new skill. According to the New York Times, not only do 4 out of 5 people break their resolutions, a third of them broke them by the end of January.
Why doesn’t it work? It takes 66 days of repetition to kick a bad habit or adopt a new one. If you think about it, 66 days is a long time to be out of our comfort zone, which is where we are when we’re trying to change our habits and patterns! Many news outlets suggest being more realistic and focusing on self-improvement year-round rather than once a year, which is certainly good advice, but how do we better capitalize on the special burst of momentum that comes only during the New Year?
Sometimes we struggle to achieve our New Year’s resolutions because they might not be based in our values. Maybe before resolving to change a habit, we should examine what our old habits mean to us, and why we have them in the first place. For example, me and one of my colleagues were talking about being former smokers recently, and we realized that, both being relatively introverted, but with active social lives, smoking cigarettes afforded both of us the opportunity to take much-needed breaks. We both considered the habit before quitting smoking, and one of the reasons we were successful was because we kept taking those much-needed breaks from social situations – just without the cigarettes!
What if your resolution wasn’t about dropping a bad habit, but about adopting a positive habit? If we want adopt a positive habit – like exercising more – it’s important to root it in why. Maybe our reason is because we want to feel better, and we’re looking to receive a short-term benefit. After all, exercising has instantaneous alleviative effects on anxiety and mood, making people feel happier and less focused on their worries or fears. That’s certainly reason enough to start exercising! However, when we examine our goal of wanting to exercise more, maybe we’ll discover that perhaps it’s because we want to look a certain way. If our new goal is rooted in comparison to others, guilt, or shame, maybe that new routine will become something we avoid – because it brings all those feelings up, so it doesn’t feel good in the first place. When you consider your own motivations, it gives you the opportunity to see and act on your true desires.
Scientifically speaking, we can also understand the process of changing a habit – and be kinder to ourselves while changing habits ourselves – by using the transtheoretical model of behavior change, or TTM, a device borne of 15 years of research in the psychological field. The TTM outlines the process in six stages: the actual change in habit, Action, doesn’t occur until the fourth stage! It’s actually prefaced by three stages: Pre-Contemplation, Contemplation, and Preparation. This means that you probably know that you may need to make a change, and that you’ll even think about specific ways of making that change, before you’re actually ready to make the leap into the new habit. After taking action, the process of change isn’t over! Maintenance of the new habit gets a whole stage of its own.
The original TTM lists Termination of the process of change as the sixth stage, then states that you can exit and re-enter the process of change at any time. However, instead of stopping at six stages, some researchers actually integrate that exit/re-enter rule into the transtheoretical model, and call it the seventh stage of change: the stage of Recycling, where you return from the maintenance stage back to an earlier stage. This understanding of the TTM communicates that that process of change is, scientifically speaking, not linear. Slip-ups are not only allowed – they’re inevitable!
So, at the beginning of 2019, how do we succeed in determining what and how we want to be different in this new year? We can work backwards from existing habits that we might want to change by seeing what they do for us. Then, we can investigate how to keep that need met while changing the habit. If we want to establish a new, healthful habit, we can analyze why we want it in the first place, and make sure it’s rooted in feeling good. Lastly, we can use scientific research to be more kind to ourselves. Maybe in thinking about a change in habit, we’re moving from the contemplation stage to a preparation stage, and we’re not quite ready to take action. Or maybe we thought we had successfully changed a habit, but we feel that we went back to the “Just thinking about it” stage. According to the transtheoretical model, that’s okay! You can also use evidence from your own life: if you think about where you are now as opposed to where you were 5 years ago, can you consider the self you’ve created and the habits you’ve established, and appreciate that it was likely incremental? Allow your trajectory to be two steps forward and one step back, and – if possible – try to even enjoy the process. It’s yours, and it’s human.