Many people at the start of the New Year set goals that are designed to help them lead better, happier lifestyles. There are good intentions behind the resolutions; however, unless they turn into habits that modify behaviors, they will just remain “good intentions.”
How does someone develop a new habit? Contrary to popular belief, it usually takes more than 21 days to make or break a habit. This was a myth developed in the 1960s. Perhaps this is why so many people throw in the towel after 3-4 weeks. However, a few years ago, British researchers reported in the European Journal of Social Psychology that it took anywhere from 18 days to 245 days to learn a new habit, depending on the temperament of the individual and the task involved. An average of 66 days.
In addition, the study showed that occasional lapses in practicing the habit did not affect the habit formation process as long as the individual picked up where they left off. What this means is you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you miss a workout routine, or decide to have dessert once in a while.
Many people think they fail at creating new habits because they lack willpower. The truth probably is they didn’t effectively plan on how to change their situation or lifestyle that would help them change their behavior. As the saying goes, “you are a product of your environment,” so it is important to establish a successful game plan that will help you stay on track.
For example, overcoming procrastination involves more than just saying, “Hey, starting tomorrow I’m going to stop waiting until the last minute.” Procrastinators can change their behavior by developing pro-active routines to help them achieve their goals. This includes identifying problem areas, learning how to manage time, and eliminating distractions.
Other ways you can create new habits are:
Break it down. Lofty goals can be overwhelming if they are not broken into smaller pieces. Start by making a list of everything you want to accomplish and then assign realistic goals.
Create a chain reaction. What this means is adding a new link into an already existing routine. If you’re in the habit of stopping by the local coffee shop for a frothy sugar-laced latte, opt for the “skinny” version with steamed nonfat milk and sugar-free flavored syrup. You’re not changing a pleasurable routine – just a behavior.
Set reminders. It’s hard to stay motivated if you can’t remember what you’re supposed to do. Set up a reminder system that will prompt you to carry out new routines that will become habit forming. This could be something as simple as writing notes on the bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker, or downloading a reminder app on your smartphone.
Embrace routines. Research shows that our mental energy dwindles when faced with too many choices. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the best way to maintain long-term discipline is, “Identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane — and then ‘routinize’ those aspects as much as possible. In short, make fewer decisions.”
Reward yourself. Once you’ve reached a personal goal, reward yourself by indulging in something enjoyable. It could be something as simple as watching a favorite movie or taking a walk.
If you are having a problem getting a handle on changing or creating a habit, consider talking with a counselor or therapist who can help you make an effective action plan and work toward goals, while providing much needed support.