We often chalk up failed resolutions to a lack of willpower, but the science behind habit-formation shows the reality is far more complex. There are lots of tricks we can use to increase our chances of success when building new habits, and equally, a tonne of mistakes that can sabotage our well-meaning desire for self-improvement.
In a 2013 study, researchers found that temporal landmarks, be that a birthday, new month or new year motivate aspirational behaviour. They suggest that these events create a distance between our current self and past self, allowing us to be critical of historical behaviours and empowered to change them.
As 2021 draws to a close, it is only natural to look to the year ahead and start thinking about what we can do differently, whether that involves building a new habit or breaking an old one. According to YouGov UK, the most popular goal in 2021 was to exercise more, shortly followed by losing weight. The American public shared these, with the addition of eating healthier.
Out of those who made a resolution in the UK, only a quarter kept all of them (26%), although half managed to keep some of them (48%). Lastly, around a quarter of those who made a resolution failed entirely (23%).
Luckily for you, we have compiled some top tips for building habits that stick, drawing on the rich body of research into human behaviour and habit-formation.
Table of contents
- What is a habit?
- How long does it take to form a habit?
- 8 proven tips for keeping New Year's Resolutions
- The takeaway: be SMART about it
Habits are formed when an action is repeated in a certain context. Eventually, the consistent context becomes a cue for the behaviour, which is automatically performed. In time and through repetition, behaviours can become automatic. You will have formed many such habits over your lifetime, such as putting on a seatbelt in the car or checking your phone in the morning.
Habits are formed when new neural pathways are formed. The good news is that our brains are plastic, meaning they can respond to behavioural changes, pruning old pathways and building new ones.
We love this short video on habit formation
There is a common saying that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but in reality, it is not an exact science. Some people might begin to develop a habit after 21 days, whilst others might take far longer. In a study of 82 participants, the time it took for a behaviour to become automatic ranged from 18 to 254 days. One thing is for certain; performing a behaviour becomes significantly easier the more you do it.
According to the Institute of Epidemiology at University College London: “...more relevant research has shown that it takes 66 days (10 weeks) on average”. If you fail to perform a behaviour, don’t beat yourself up! Relapse is part of the habit-forming process and is an opportunity to learn, adjust and move forward.
Now we know what habits are, let’s look at some techniques you can use to build New Year’s Resolutions that stick:
Frame your resolution positively
In one study, it was shown that simply framing goals in positive terms increased both performance and perseverance in comparison to a task framed negatively. This goes to show how powerful a mindset can be when pursuing change.
Let’s say that you are trying to quit smoking in the new year. One way to set yourself up for success would be to emphasise the money you will save and the health benefits of a smoke-free life. On the contrary, quitting smoking and seeing it as a loss will automatically make you feel resentful. An example of this might be dwelling on the lack of smoke breaks at work.
How you achieve this is up to you, though downloading apps that calculate money saved and health milestones are both great ideas, using the smoking example. Likewise, if you want to improve your diet, writing down a list of tasty, healthy recipes is far more helpful than thinking about a list of foods you cannot eat.
Stack your habits
In his New York Times bestselling book Tiny Habits, behavioural scientist BJ Fogg recommends a clever technique called habit stacking. In short, Fogg suggests “piggybacking” a new habit onto a pre-existing one, something shown to increase the likelihood it’ll stick.
For example, if you already consistently have a cup of coffee each morning, you might add a new habit, such as eating a banana, onto this. Other examples might include:
- After I get into bed, I will read
- After my morning shower, I will meditate
- After scrolling social media, I will journal
- After an hour of TV, I will gor for a run
In one study, researchers asked two groups to start flossing, although one was instructed to do so before brushing their teeth, and the other group afterwards. Those who added flossing after the existing habit of brushing their teeth tended to form stronger flossing habits.
Try temptation bundling
Temptation bundling involves linking activities you want to do with those you should do. The technique rests upon Premack’s principle, which states “more probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours.”
In a study catchingly titled: Holding Hunger Games Hostage At The Gym, researchers explored the effectiveness of temptation bundling with the help of popular audiobooks. In short, participants were split into three groups, each with different conditions set upon their audiobook access. The first group could listen whenever they wanted, whilst the second groups access was partially limited, some parts only being available when they attended the gym.
As for the third group, their access to the audiobooks was entirely restricted, meaning they could only listen when they were in the gym. Interestingly, those whose access was restricted entirely visited the gym 51% more frequently than the control group who could listen whenever they wanted. This study demonstrates the power of combining an activity we crave with one we need to perform.
Other ideas for how you can implement temptation bundling include:
- Watching your favourite show whilst doing household chores (I do this when making the bed and washing dishes)
- Organising boring emails whilst getting your nails done
- Getting your favourite coffee when studying
You can even combine temptation bundling with habit-stacking, thereby increasing your chances of building habits that stick. The best-selling author James Clear has devised the following formula on how to do this:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED]
After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
Make a plan
What if I told you that there is something far more important than motivation when building a new habit? A simple but effective method to increase your chances of performing a behaviour? As I am sure you have guessed from my rhetorical questions, there is such a thing; researchers call it implementation intention, but that simply means making a plan for you and me.
In a 2001 study published by the British Journal Of Health Psychology, researchers looked at the best way to motivate individuals to exercise over a 2 week period. To do this, they took 248 individuals and split these into three groups: a control group, a motivation group and an intention group.
The control group were simply asked to track how often they exercised but were given no further instruction. The motivation group were asked to track their exercise but were also shown a video on the many health benefits of exercise. Lastly, the intention group were also shown the motivational video, but in addition, they were asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise.
Professor Katherine Milkman discusses the small steps that can lead to big changes
The results are compelling: 38% of the control group exercised once a week whilst 35% of the motivational group managed to do so. In contrast, a staggering 91% of the group asked to make a plan exercised once a week. Simply by writing down when and where a habit would take place, participants had increased their chances of following through with the new behaviour almost threefold. Other studies have confirmed that plan-making can increase follow-through also.
In another study at Wharton, employees at a large company were split into two groups. Both groups received mailers about a flu shot, although one of the emails prompted recipients to make a plan about the exact time they would receive the shot. Those who made a plan were significantly more likely to get a flu shot, once again demonstrating the power of planning. This also proved true in a group of patients when planning a colonoscopy.
Make them measurable
You can’t manage what you can’t measure, so make sure your goals are specific and can be tracked. Vague, ill-defined targets, such as “get fitter”, are a recipe for failed resolutions. To increase your chances of success, you need to hone in further on this goal.
To do this, ask yourself what you consider “fitter” and how you can achieve this. A better resolution might be “run 5k in X minutes''. You could even add deadlines for reaching certain milestones. Likewise, instead of a vague target like “eat healthier”, it would be far better to set yourself a target such as “eat 200g of vegetables and 200g of fruit a week”. Specific goals allow you to track progress, which in turn can motivate you.
Make the resolution as enjoyable as possible
When trying to build a habit, it helps if you enjoy the process along the way. For example, if you want to exercise more, your chances of sticking with a new regime will be far higher if you choose a type of movement that is intrinsically enjoyable. If you can’t think of anything worse than a spin class, do yourself a favour and choose activities that excite you, whether that be hiking, climbing or swimming.
Multiple studies have shown that mastery-based goals (pursued because they are meaningful) are more likely to result in success long-term than performance based goals (performing to do well in comparison with others).
In one longitudinal survey study, it was found that students who focussed on the mastery aspect of maths (“I invest a lot of effort in math, because I am interested in the subject”) were on average more successful over three years than those who focussed on simply achieving a good grade in maths. Interestingly, those who focussed on performance were more successful in the short-term. This might explain why so many individuals fall short of their NYE resolutions, despite getting off to a good start.
Make sure they’re your resolutions
This may sound silly, but sometimes we can end up chasing goals that society or our family has influenced us to pursue, despite them being contrary to our own wishes. For example, many might feel pressured to lose weight because their friends are doing so, despite this goal not being particularly meaningful to them. This year, ignore diet culture and take the time to formulate a goal that will excite and energise you. Life is too short to chase someone else’s resolution.
Have you always wanted to draw? Perhaps you want to be more flexible? Or maybe you simply want to write a short story? Whatever the resolution, make sure it is something meaningful to you, not something you feel pressured to do.
If you want a simple tool to help you form more effective resolutions, you can’t do much better than SMART. This is a memorable acronym laying out the criteria for successful goal-making. According to this principle, an effective New Years Resolution should be:
- Specific - a goal should be well-defined and unambiguous
- Measurable - a goal should be trackable and have criteria for what success will look like
- Attainable - our goals should be ambitious but achievable
- Relevant - our goals should be meaningful to us and actually be something we desire
- Time-bound - we should have deadlines for our goals to motivate ourselves.
By following the SMART principles and incorporating the habit-making techniques we discussed, you’ll be well on your way to making effective resolutions that stick.