It’s easy to have a conflicted relationship with setting resolutions for the new year. Often, our resolutions are lofty goals, such as being healthier, or achieving a final product such as weight loss. The reality is that it is difficult to change habits to achieve these larger goals. Many of us have great intentions – only to experience our resolutions sticking for a short time. When our goals and new habits fall by the wayside, we often give up and beat ourselves up rather than accepting our normal and very human misstep so that we can explore what would help in the future and try again with the new habits we are trying to form. New habits take much repetition before they are intrinsically rewarding – the more we can do them, the easier they will become.
So, what helps make those resolutions stick? Here are 4 steps to help you succeed with your New Year’s PLAN (Probe, Learn, Anticipate, Negotiate) that may give you more success by turning your resolutions into smaller rituals and routines that eventually become rewarding on their own – which makes them easier to sustain.
P - Probe
Take some time before the new year to do some sleuthing – be like a scientist and get curious about probing the “what, where, when, who” of your habits!
First, what is a habit? A habit is something we do automatically, without much thought. Habits can be helpful, as they help conserve our cognitive energy as we do routine tasks throughout the day. Imagine what it would be like to have to think through every step of your morning routine, from the moment you wake, or the steps it takes to know how to drive to work – we would be exhausted before we reached our first new task of the day!
The routine nature of habits, however, can also work against us when we want to make changes in our behaviors. For example, we are often unaware of some of our eating habits - like grabbing candy every time we pass someone’s candy jar on their desk - or grabbing a bag of chips to eat while we watch tv. Maybe we are always in a hurry in the morning, and don’t get up early enough to have breakfast to fuel our day. Or; perhaps it is easier to sit on the couch instead of going for a walk when we finish our work.
Take a moment to think about what routines or habits you currently have that might not be serving you as well as you would like. If it’s difficult to come up with them, think about times of day, places, people or things you encounter. These are the triggers, or cues, that prompt our brain to engage in the familiar routine - mindlessly on autopilot.
L – Learn
Once you have identified some habits, you can learn ways to hack them. Get curious about habits and start exploring what reward you think you get from them.
For example, what reward do you get from grabbing chips and watching tv at night? Is it reward for finishing the day? Is it a transition into nighttime? Is it a need to soothe agitation? Is it connecting with someone else at the end of the day? What about that candy jar on the co-worker's desk? Is it getting a break from the stress or monotony of work? Is it socially connecting with that co-worker or other co-workers?
Once you learn the reward you think the habit gives, then you can begin to learn what might happen if you got curious about alternatives that might get you the same reward, but with fewer consequences. For example, if we are using chips and tv to soothe agitation, could we instead work on a project with our hands, or expend some energy by moving or stretching? What if we connect with another person in that nightly ritual? Could you instead make tea to share or play a game together?
What universal human need does your habit serve? What is important to you – something you need every day? Is it connection with another person or animal? Feeling settled? Peace? Comfort? Safety? Relaxation?
A - Anticipate
Now that you know the triggers or cues for certain habits, have a better idea of what you think they give you as a reward, you can now begin to anticipate and look for the times when your habit might be triggered. Maybe a social event might be a trigger, or feeling lonely/disconnected after the holidays. Anticipate and expect these triggers and needs to arise, and have a PLAN in place to navigate and negotiate some different responses to the trigger, feeling, or need for the reward.
N - Negotiate
Once we have explored the triggers and rewards around a habit, we can then Negotiate new responses to help us get the real reward that we desire. For example, maybe we want to feel more energy or feel soothed after work. What if, instead of sitting on the couch and grabbing a snack, we have our walking shoes by the door and head outside for a walk around the block (or a few blocks)? Negotiating responses can be helpful if you PLAN these alternatives ahead of time, and even negotiate with yourself – you can always go sit on the couch and have a snack after you return from your walk! Give yourself permission to negotiate these responses and see how it feels after trying it a few times.