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A few days ago, someone shared an Instagram reel of someone reviewing their 2022 goals and altering them to check them off as accomplished. So, getting a new car became “get a new carwash,” saving $50,000 was edited down to “$50,” and living happy was changed to “live.” In a funny way, these actions underscore the reality behind new year’s resolutions: they are hard to keep. Why? Because bad habits are hard to break and creating an environment for lasting change that fosters new behaviors is not an easy task.
Luke, the evangelist, highlights the need for counting the cost and preparing as a way of finding success in any enterprise. “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” to avoid the problem of beginning to build and not being able to complete it (Luke 14:28-30).
Whether formally or informally, many of us engage in the time-honored practice of making new year’s resolutions. With a healthy dose of self-confidence, we welcome the new year with the resolve to make definite changes in our lives. We set out to lose the extra weight we have gained, become more organized or productive, quit an unhealthy habit, or even learn a new skill. But, before long, our efforts are derailed, our resolution falls by the wayside, and we find ourselves singing the same Auld Lang Syne.
So, how can we make new year’s resolutions work? I am glad you asked. Let me share with you some practical ideas on how science can help.
The Science Behind Creating New Behaviors
Habits are learned forms or modes of behavior that become involuntary patterns through repetition. Clayton R. Cook, professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, posits that habits are behavioral responses to cues or stimuli embedded within our environment. Some examples of these habits are turning on our coffee maker (mode of behavior) after turning off our alarm clock and getting out of bed (stimuli) or checking our to-do list (mode of behavior) after sitting in front of our computers at 9 a.m. (stimuli).
Therefore, the formation of new habits presupposes the creation of new behavior patterns. In other words, for lasting change, we must replace old behaviors with new ones. How do we create these new behaviors? Cook suggests a simple framework to develop new behaviors. First, you must become aware of the underlying stimuli. Second, make and embed new cues that prompt you to exhibit new desired behaviors. Three, set up signals that trigger the new behavior (i.e., the new habit you are trying to form).
Behavioral scientist Susan Weinschenk suggests that two main lines of brain and behavior science influence the creation of new behavior patterns. Weinschenk posits that to change an old habit, you need to create a new one by picking a small action, attaching it to the previous habit, and making these actions easy enough to repeat for at least one week. This is necessary because you must practice the new habit from the existing stimulus between 3 to 7 times before it starts working on its own. Then, we must change our self-story. Weinschenk suggests that our self-stories have a powerful influence on our decisions and actions. To accomplish this, we must write our existing story paying attention to what goes against the resolution we want to adopt. Then, re-write or create a new self-story that includes the changes you want to make and share it with someone who cares. These proactive steps can make a significant difference in the results you get.
- PBS correspondent Frank Graff unpacks the science behind habits and new year’s resolutions.
- Behavioral scientist Katy Milkman makes a compelling argument about how science can help us change our behaviors.
- CNN’s Ryan Prior interviews doctoral student Erika Kirgios about how science can help us stick to our new year’s resolutions.
- Christine Carter, senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center, underscores how relationships, thankfulness, and well-being can make us happier as we begin a new year.
- In “Easter Habits,” Drew provides a wealth of resources for developing good habits based on behavioral science.
- Inside Science highlights the science behind what makes a resolution work.
Keeping Our New Year’s Resolutions
As I write this piece, a calcium oxalate kidney stone is resting on my desk. It is a painful reminder of how much I need to make some changes in my life. For this reason, I have resolved to reduce the intake of foods with high concentrations of calcium oxalate, drink more water, exercise, and maintain a healthy weight to reduce the occurrence of these painful events. But building and keeping these changes is easier said than done. Here is where behavioral science can help us with our new year’s resolutions. Here you have four ideas. First, break your goal into smaller, manageable pieces. Second, connect your desired new habits to the things that triggered the behaviors you want to change. Three, create a reward system that makes you proud of your accomplishments. Four, don’t expect this will be easy in the beginning.
I know I began by highlighting the failures experienced by some in their quest to fulfill their new year’s resolutions. However, the truth is that research shows that people who make resolutions are ten times more likely to change their behaviors than those who do not make any formal resolutions. Now, paired with proactive science-based steps, your chances of success are far more significant. Let me share five strategies to help you succeed in your new year’s resolutions. First, make just one resolution. Second, remember that small goals are better. Third, think of changing your habits as something positive instead of restrictive. Fourth, set a timeline (short-, medium-, and long-term goals). Fifth, aim for progress, not perfection.
Earlier I mentioned Luke’s framework of proactivity as the foundation for success in any enterprise. Therefore, counting the cost, laying out a comprehensive action plan, and ensuring success by putting in the necessary effort are necessary ingredients for achieving our new year’s resolutions. As we let go of the old and embrace the new at the beginning of this year, I am reminded of the importance of finding the strength to improve our lives and share God’s kindness and goodness. May the Lord fill you with blessings in this new year.