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New Year resolutions: why are good habits so hard to make stick?

New Year resolutions: why are good habits so hard to make stick?

  • Did you come up with New Year’s resolutions you were determined to keep this year but here we are mid-January, and you can already feel you are losing your grip on sticking to those resolutions? Then you are not alone.

Did you come up with New Year’s resolutions you were determined to keep this year but here we are mid-January, and you can already feel you are losing your grip on sticking to those resolutions? Then you are not alone.

Many of us use the New Year as a means of initiating fresh habits, new beginnings, a new me. But how can we ensure we see through the giddy first couple of days when we are achieving our new goals and go on to still achieve them at the end of the year? Well, here is a dip into a couple of areas of psychology that you can try to see if they can help you to get back on track with your New Year resolutions this year.

Good intentions

A friend of mine posted this the other day: My 2022 New Year’s resolution is to finish all the craft projects from 2021 that I should have done in 2020, since I started them in 2019 after buying the supplies for them in 2018. Does this resonate with you? It does with me. There is a flat piece of driftwood still outside my parents’ house today, which I brought home to the UK from a holiday in France in 1997, intending to turn it into a shelf.

I wonder if that piece of driftwood has now spent more of its life outside my childhood home than it did being tossed about in the ocean’s waves being formed into a piece of driftwood in the first place? Exercise more. Run every day. No alcohol in the week. Quit smoking. Read your book every day. No snacks. Write a daily journal. Cut out caffeine.

Each of these in themselves seem eminently achievable but then why are they so hard to maintain? Let’s have a delve into the psychology of why resolutions are difficult to keep going and how to try and maintain them long-term.

Why are bad habits so hard to stop and good habits so difficult to implement?

Have you ever wondered why it is so effortlessly easy to keep all of our bad habits and simultaneously impossible to start and keep doing good habits? Why is it so easy to come home from work, collapse on the couch and scroll through FaceBook for an hour watching comedy clips, or cruise through three episodes of a fairly average Netflix series rather than go for that run?

If you’re like me then the number of reasons why you didn’t go for a run are easy to come up with and seemingly endless. It was a bit cold. I’d had a hard day. I was home late. I won’t be able to fit in a decent run and eat and then be able to sleep. I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll start next week. Bad habits are so much easier to do and to keep doing, for a reason.

Collapsing on the couch and scrolling through social media gives us immediate rewards and pleasure. Our brains’ pleasure sensors are instantly satisfied because these bad habits (opening and eating a packet of crisps or playing on our phones) are so easily and quickly done and we immediately receive pleasurable feedback.

‘Satisfaction’ with minimal effort

We get ‘satisfaction’ with minimal effort. However, the pleasure from going to the gym and becoming strong or a long run or denying yourself something, requires effort and hardship and the rewards are not immediate. Some of these activities require an effort to overcome inertia when energy and motivation levels are already low, and the pleasure we derive from them is often only found in the longer term.

The satisfaction of not snacking in the evening is certainly not pleasurable, and can take a while to start becoming a habit and normal, and the good feelings you derive from denying yourself these things, may take even longer to kick-in. So, in essence, bad habits are often hard to break because they tend to be activities that offer our brains instant feelings of pleasure, whereas good habits often don’t have immediate pleasure feedback and are more long-term in nature.

Being too ambitious

I am going to read a book a day. I am going to run 10 km every day. I am going to write for an hour every day. I am going cut out all snacks. I am going to exercise for 30 minutes every morning before work. The bigger and grander these ideas are, the juicier they sound. Although our grandiose schemes sound incredibly impressive when we say them out loud to our partners, friends and colleagues, are they achievable? Little goals or targets aren’t half as juicy sounding, but they are way more achievable. So, on similar lines to Lao Tzu’s expression that a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step, the concept of doing a little of absolutely anything is a great way to overcome the enormity of a much bigger task.

Reading something every day, even if it is one line, is a lot less threatening and overwhelming than keeping up with reading an entire book every day. Telling yourself you only must do one minute of running a day is so much more achievable than running 10 km every day. Turning on your computer and doing one minute of writing is much easier than any other writing challenge you set yourself. It is mentally a lot less threatening and easily achievable.

Overcome the hardest part

By the time you’re appropriately dressed, tied up your trainer shoelaces and stepped outside for your one minute of running exercise, you’ll find you’ve overcome the hardest part, and the one minute of running may lead to five or ten minutes. And by the time you’ve sat down with a cup of tea and turned on the computer, and opened that Word document, and written a line, then you’ll probably find you’ve overcome that “starter block” and will write much more than one line, because it wasn’t so out of reach or frightening to begin with. But if you don’t manage more than one line, no problem. You’ve achieved today’s goal.

So, promise yourself to do just a minute of something every day, or a bit of something, because it is less daunting, increases the chance of it happening, and once you’ve started, it may lead to more. This approach will also help you get the habit embedded. Give it a go…but just for a minute.

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