If you’re like me, and that most likely explains why you’re reading a blog post about improving habitual behavior, you like to set goals. Flashback to January 1, 2020. This is not only the start of a new year but a new decade! I personally spent hours writing and deciding on resolutions, goals, and dreams that would act as landmarks for the next 10 years of my life. You can imagine my disappointment when everything went to shit. 2020 became a year of the unexpected as people still deal with the lasting effects of a global pandemic, environmental disasters, and so much more. What I now realize about the goals and intentions I set a year ago, is that they weren’t based on anything other than superficial interests and expectations for the future. It didn’t take long for me to come up with excuses as to why my new year’s resolutions in 2020 were no longer viable and how I was already behind on my goals for the decade. Sound familiar? My mother openly admits to never setting new year’s resolutions anymore because she hates feeling disappointed when they don’t last. Setting goals for an entire calendar year can be a daunting task. This post will explain why new year’s resolutions never seem to work and how we can combat this by forming habits backed by science.
New Year, New You? Not Really.
I probably won’t be the first person to point out that just because the calendar changes, this doesn’t make you a new or better person than a day prior. It is the choices we make in the present that define who we are. Undoubtedly, it is exciting to set new goals and intentions and what better time to start than a new month or a new year? This gives us a reason to start or to change but that 30 day green-juice-only cleanse you’re trying out probably won’t last. Inevitably, you’re going to run into the same challenges and use the same excuses to explain away why these new habits just won’t stick. You find yourself in the same spot you were last year and suddenly our new year’s resolutions fall by the wayside. Triandis (1980) suggests that deliberate intentions may become irrelevant in guiding behavior when the behavior has been performed repeatedly in the past and has become habitual. These behaviors are influenced by a number of factors including our physical environment, our social support, our personal beliefs, and more. What are some physical, social, or personal factors that hold you back from achieving your goals? How can you eliminate this barrier?
This Can Go One Of Two Ways
If it makes you feel better, some of these habits are reinforced subconsciously and have been for a long time. This is known as Dual Processing. Daniel Kahneman explores this behavioral dynamic in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Kahneman outlines two directions of thought in System 1 (S1) and System 2 (S2). S1 is an automatic response, totally error prone, and largely instinctive. S2 is your high level critical thinking, uses far more energy, and is logic based. Tim Gallwey describes the same phenomenon in his book, “The Inner Game of Tennis” by similarly describing Self 1 and Self 2. So consider this, you just finish a long day of work and you’ve been meaning to get a workout in. In the past, you might procrastinate this by scrolling through social media instead of putting on sweats and sneakers for a run. S1 prompts this behavior because its instinctive and requires little to no energy. Essentially, our brain says, “been there done that”. When the social media behavior is positively reinforced by feelings of comfort or lethargy, the behavioral pattern becomes deeply ingrained (automatic). S2 may recognize we have a new year’s resolution to workout more, we’re well aware of the benefits of exercise, but can still be difficult to act upon. Shifting from S1 to S2 can require energy and intentionality. Maybe we find we don’t have the motivation that day. Maybe we’re not being mindful of obtrusive habits. Whatever the cause, when we’re setting goals and expectations for a new year be aware you’re not only fighting to form new habits but you’re also fighting to end old ones too. Which of your existing habits get in the way of new habits?
Habits of Thought
Often times, we think of habits like routines or physical acts that resemble brushing our teeth after waking up in the morning. These are easier to identify but when considering patterns of behavior that are reinforced by our subconscious, we need to go deeper. Hutchinson (2020) outlines the following habits of thought that explain how our new year’s resolutions run into mental challenges:
- The Fortune Telling Habit – frames irrational thoughts as bad habits
- The Mind Reading Habit – frames projected feelings as bad habits
- The Emotional Reasoning Habit – uses how we feel to interpret the situation
- The Awfulising Habit – taking one instance and assuming everything is awful
- The Must and Should Habit – projecting insecurities
- All or Nothing Thinking – projecting absolutes
These habits of thought can be detrimental to behavior change and for good reason. It’s hard enough to curb a bad habit like smoking or nail biting, now we have to consider the mental side too. How do you choose to be mindful of your behavior? How might you be able to increase your perspective in various areas of your life? Which of these habits of thought give you trouble?
How To Cultivate Sustainable Change
All of this is to say, change isn’t easy. We know there are so many factors working against us and the additional pressure of maintaining a new habit for an entire year is difficult. Some of the barriers that have prevented behavior change in the past, may still be affecting us. Below you can find a helpful graphic outlining how to reinforce good habits and get rid of bad habits (Hutchinson, 2020).
Whether your goals in 2021 are to form new habits or get rid of old habits, habit stacking is a popular way to approach this intention. Habit stacking takes a series of small changes and builds rituals you follow on a daily basis. Each habit is triggered by the completion of the one that preceded it. What this means is if you’re trying to start meditating for five minutes in the morning, before you start driving to work or open your computer you sit down to practice. This leads to sustainable behavior change because we’re building on something we’ve already included in our routines. You might run into difficulty on the weekend when you don’t have the structure of work to reinforce this habit but below are some helpful systems of support that can also contribute to sustainable changes in the new year.
- Helping Relationships: Getting social support and using significant others to effect change
- Reinforcement Management: Being rewarded by the self or others for engaging in positive behavior
- Social Liberation: Taking advantage of social situations that encourage the positive behavior
- Stimulus Control: Using cues as a catalyst for the positive behavior
- Self-Liberation: Becoming committed to the positive behavior
Ultimately, we have to find what works for each of us as individuals. You might find success joining virtual running groups or going on vegetarian diet with a significant other. Long lasting habitual change doesn’t happen automatically. It takes a daily dose of intentionality. James Clear in “Atomic Habits” writes about getting 1% better every day. This regular practice of positive behavior change is far from easy but unequivocally worth it in the long run.
Goodreads names 4 Books to Help You Build New Habits that I believe are wonderful resources for those interested in additional reading. I hope you take comfort in knowing that change is constant. It might not always feel like we’re making progress, especially when we’re looking at changes within the self, but every moment is different than the last. I encourage you to track your progress. Start a journal, film a vlog, check in with a friend. Be open about your good days and your bad days. Habitual change is a product of several factors so don’t be hard on yourself if you make a mistake or if you don’t get the outcome you were expecting. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be patient.
Hutchinson, J. (2020, October 1). Habits: Building the good & breaking the bad [Slides]. Brightspace. https://springfieldcollege.brightspace.com/d2l/le/content/30489/viewContent/739250/View
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Triandis, H. C. (1980). Reflections on Trends in Cross-Cultural Research. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 11(1), 35–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022180111003