Setting New Year’s resolutions that quietly fall by the wayside within the month is so common as to be cliché this time of year. What if this year could be different? What if at the end of 2023 you thought differently, acted differently, and accomplished more of what mattered to you? Up to 40% of what we do is driven by our habits. Building habits is how we can make changes that will stick.
The key is instead of setting new year’s resolutions, to plan new year’s habits. Aristotle said, “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” The key to creating real change is choosing the right habits. Daily steps will get you further in the next year than isolated big leaps.
Instead of New Year New You, try New Year New Habits. Here are a series of future-focused questions and reflections to help you identify and implement habits that will help make this year different.
Step 1: Set a specific goal: What is a single, specific goal that you would like to achieve by the end of 2023? Be as specific as possible. “Get in shape” or “be healthier,” while good ideas are not specific enough to create actionable goals around. Instead, consider what it means to you to get in shape. Does that mean being someone who goes to the gym 3 times a week? Does that mean to be able to run a 10k? Does it mean being someone who walks 3 miles five times a week? Consider what it truly means for you and create as crystal clear a goal as you can. Also, consider what this goal will mean for you? What makes this important? What makes it urgent or timely right now? How will accomplishing it change how you live, how you feel, or your sense of accomplishment?
Step 2: What habits would you need to start or continue in order to reach your goal? It doesn’t have to be the same thing every day, and it could be a habit that grows. For example, I may decide I need the habit of going to the gym and doing 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week in January and increasing to 45 minutes in February. Set habit goals that will be achievable but that also excite you.
Habits are powerful because they reduce the willpower we need to do difficult things. You don’t have to fret each morning over whether you will brush your teeth and if you have the energy to do it, because it is a habit. If you had to make the decision and weigh the pros and cons of brushing your teeth each and every time, it would be a waste of mental energy. The same is true of going to the gym. Once it becomes a habit, you don’t waste the mental energy deciding whether you should go, you do it automatically.
Habits are strengthened through a cycle of positive reinforcement. When we brush our teeth, we feel cleaner, we like that feeling, and so we’re more likely to brush our teeth again the next day. Think intentionally about how you can create positive reinforcement for the habit you want to start. After a time, as we start seeing results, the habits become self-reinforcing, but at the start, it can help to provide ‘artificial’ positive reinforcement. For example, you could provide a sense of reward by checking off the days that you exercised on a calendar or a habit tracker. You could share your daily exercise with an accountability buddy. You could create a mini mindfulness activity or mantra that you say after your exercise that acknowledges your effort and creates a sense of accomplishment for you. Your brain ultimately wants to feel good. By tying positive emotions to your habit, you will create your own positive reinforcement loop.
Step 3: Operationalize your habit plan. Next, we bridge the gap between wishing and planning. If you decided, for example, that you want your new habit to be exercising three times per week, then take a look at your calendar and start to fit in the times. New habits are like tenuous baby plants. You have to take care of them the most in the beginning until they become sturdy enough to stand on their own. Add the activity to your calendar, and be as specific as you can. Instead of ‘exercise,’ include what you will do (strength class) and where (gym). I think about this as the Clue method of planning, after the classic board game. Plan what you will do, where, when, and with whom.
Separating your planning and doing has another key benefit. If you haven’t planned out exactly what exercises you will do and where, then when the time comes on your calendar for you to exercise, there is ambiguity. Your brain then has to decide in the moment what you will do. The ambiguity leaves room for alternatives, and you may find your brain offering you thoughts instead such as: Exercise sounds hard, maybe I should just stay home and do something else. It won’t matter to skip this time. When you have the details of the activity and the location planned out, your brain tends to give less resistance.
If your goal is to finish a book chapter or a grant in the next few months, then being specific can help too. You could add the times you will work on it to your calendar, and add specific plans, such as: Do a literature search for the background section and select top 20 articles. Another date entry may be: Read and summarize the top articles, etc. By breaking the big activity of “finish book chapter” into manageable activities, your brain provides less protest.
Step 4: Consider the inner obstacles. This step is too often missed and is the key to understanding why you have trouble sticking with certain habits. Think about what inner obstacles you may encounter. Of course, there could be outer obstacles, such as unexpected problems at work, loss of childcare availability at home, or any number of things. But the bigger obstacles are always inside us. One obstacle you may face could be, for example, feeling disheartened because you don’t think your efforts will lead to results. Another could be feeling overwhelmed at how far you have to go. Or it could be feeling ashamed that you have let things get to the state they are in. Or it could just be feeling lazy or tired or stressed.
Next, create a plan for what you will do when you encounter those obstacles. This plan is called an implementation intention and looks like this:
When I encounter [inner obstacle] then I will ___________.
Consider what you can to do help lower the height of that inner obstacle or help yourself get over it. This part is very personal and unique to you, but here are a few ideas:
When I feel worried that I won’t see the results I want, then I will remind myself that results take a long time, and if I give up now then I definitely won’t see results.
When I feel too tired, then I will honestly and non-judgmentally ask myself if I will feel better after doing the habit or worse?
When I feel like an imposter and that I don’t know what I’m doing, then I will remind myself that I don’t know everything, but I know enough, and what I don’t know, I can learn.
Implementation intentions could also be actions. For example:
When I just don’t feel like exercising, then I will tell myself I can just do it for 30 minutes and then if I want to, I can stop.
When I feel overwhelmed by the project, then I will stand up, stretch, take a deep breath, and ask myself: “what is the immediate next step.”
When I feel anxious that I might mess up, then I will text my accountability buddy and review my habit tracker.
Taking the time to reflect on your own inner obstacles and writing out how you will overcome them is a powerful tool to develop self-awareness and to empower you to create change.
Step 5: Consider the outer obstacles. Our best-laid plans can sometimes fall prey to outer obstacles that then give us an excuse to not take action. For example, if you had planned to go to the gym, but then the roads were too icy, what will your backup exercise plan be? If you had planned to work on the introduction section of your book chapter, but you can’t because you need a section from another co-author first, then what other part could you work on that could take the project closer to the finished state?
Having resilient plans will help you keep external obstacles from derailing your progress.
Another tip is to view everything as an experiment. Vowing to never drink alcohol seems daunting and like you are setting yourself up for failure. Trying out dry January as an experiment is doable and allows you to see how you feel without alcohol. You may find your exercise or writing habit needs to evolve over time. Anticipate the need for adaptability from the start and allow yourself to experiment to figure out what works.
Finally, think about coaching! Working with someone one-on-one to think through the steps to creating change is a powerful way to jump-start your progress. If you have set resolutions in past years and failed to keep them, then to get different results this year, you need to do something different. Make this the year that the habits stick. Coaching is a great way to invest in yourself. If you are curious to find out more, check out the coaching page on my website. Coaching now includes CME credit for physicians.
No matter how you decide to ring in the new year, I hope you can take time to pause, reflect, regroup, and prepare to meet the new year with courage and optimism.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.Aristotle