Habit science to supercharge your New Year's Resolutions!

7 January 2020

Welcome to 2020!

The start of a new year (and a whole new decade!) is always a great opportunity to think about any changes you might wish to make in your life. Something about a fresh start is very motivating - at least initially - and we all love setting lofty new year's resolutions ranging from going for a run 5 days a week, to finally quitting smoking, to learning how to speak french.

The thing that most typical resolutions have in common is that they centre around habits, both good and bad. Picking up a new gym routine involves forming a good habit for example. Cutting out sugar from your diet involves breaking a bad one.

Behavioural science has a lot to say on this topic: Charles Duigg’s seminal book ‘The Power of Habit’ published in 2012 marked the beginning of a new focus on the science of habitual behaviours. More recently, ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear, and ‘Good Habits, Bad Habits’ by Professor Wendy Wood have added even more to the literature pool, arming us with tonnes of information about how to proceed in our new year’s endeavours.

If you’ve already picked out your resolutions, or you’ve been wanting to make a change for a while, here are some science-backed, habit-based tips and tricks to help you. For the purpose of this blogpost we’ll be focusing on the practical steps you can implement to support your behaviour change, but if you would like to read more about the science of habits, please check out our longer PDF on this very topic!

Good luck!

Tip 1 - Create a stable and supportive environment

Habits are always triggered by a cue, typically in a context that is stable and consistent in our lives. The cue triggers our memory of doing the same action or routine previously, and helps to initiate it again. Much of our routine behaviour is cued by the time of day, for example making your first cup of coffee after waking up, or eating a meal at lunchtime.

A supportive environment means removing barriers and making it as easy as possible for yourself to perform the new behaviour. A classic example of this is packing your gym bag in the evening if you want to go to the gym in the morning. This removes the friction of having to decide what to wear, what work clothes you might need, and whether or not to make a pack lunch, all at 6am in the morning! In addition to this, you might place your gym bag in front of your bedroom door so that it’s one of the first things you see in the morning. This will provide a cue for you to get up and go to the gym!

Tip 2 - Leverage the context

Research shows us that one of the best times to develop a new habit, or break an old one, is during ‘life changes’. That could mean moving house, changing jobs, a new baby or any other event that disrupts the routine behaviours you currently partake in.

Annoyingly, it’s pretty impossible to manufacture a significant life change just to help you with your new year’s resolutions (although make a note of this for next time you move house!), so another way to leverage context is to piggyback your new habit onto an existing one. This works especially well when the new behaviour is compatible with the existing habit. For example, if you want to start flossing your teeth regularly, piggybacking onto your teeth brushing routine is the smartest way to establish a new routine quickly and effectively. Perhaps you want to start a stretching routine to increase flexibility? If you already regularly partake in a form of exercise, incorporating the stretching before or after your current practise is a great idea.

Tip 3 - Start small, and make a plan

You’re better off running for 10 minutes a day consistently across the year, compared to setting a huge goal or running 10km every week and never meeting your targets. Setting goals that are too huge might initially seem like a challenge, but as your motivation starts to wane they can instead feel overwhelming, unachievable, and too difficult.

If you start by building a small habit, you can then slowly build your behaviour, piggybacking as we suggested above. A great example of this might be if you want to cut back on your alcohol intake. Many people start off the year with Dry January, which is motivating for a number of reasons not least the fact that taking part in a social movement provides us with the social norms reinforcement we crave as human beings. But after January, going completely cold turkey might start to seem impossible. What about big social events like birthdays and weddings?

Make a plan. Perhaps at first you will decide not to have an alcoholic drink on Mondays. Try that for a month or two. And then when that has become routine, add another day to the mix. The trick here is to keep building slowly, try not to be in a rush to reach the end goal. In behavioural science we call this kind of goal-setting chunking, and it’s really effective!

Tip 4 - Reward yourself!

Finally, a reward for all your hard work! Research suggests that incorporating some kind of reward during a new routine or after achieving a goal can help to incentivise and motivate us. On top of this, rewards also help to reinforce our new routines, which is crucial for developing a proper habit.

To make the most of this incentivising effect, you should try to include a variety of different types of reward: tangible rewards such as rewarding yourself with a latte from a nice coffee shop when you manage to cycle to work instead of driving; or more subconscious rewards like getting more quality time with your family if you succeed in cutting down your ‘screen time’. Varying the size of the rewards also helps: small rewards can pave the way to succeeding at a larger goal which is coupled with an equivalent prize.

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