The tradition of creating new years resolutions dates back to ancient Babylonians (estimated over four thousand years ago) and has been observed in a variety of different cultures in their own traditional way. In general, most Americans understand new years resolutions to be goal oriented life changes (e.g. work out more, stop smoking, learn how to knit, ect.). It is estimated that about 90% of Americans create new year's resolutions while only about 5% of them feel like they accomplished those resolutions by the end of the year. Instead of focusing on why people don’t accomplish their new year resolutions let’s focus on an alternative, habit planning.
It’s great to have goals and desire life changes but sometimes it’s helpful to break down how exactly you can make accomplishing those goals possible. Creating smaller habits might help one more realistically reach their long term goals. The difficulty with creating new habits is knowing what habits matter, and which order the habits should follow. It may be easy to think “my new year's resolution is to quit smoking” but then when you ask yourself what the first step is and the mind may come to a blank. Instead of thinking forwards let's take time to reflect on habits that align with the act of smoking. What are you doing before you smoke? How often does that happen throughout the day? What adjustments in your day do you have to make in order to smoke? We often build habits around our previously established habits, and we can actually use these habits to catapult new ones.
Let’s continue with the example of wanting to quit smoking as a resolution. If your daily routine consists of waking up, getting ready, smoking and then eating breakfast the first option might be to eat breakfast before smoking to disrupt the habit. Then once the habit is disrupted you would add on an alternative. After eating breakfast, instead of smoking, it could be helpful to do something to distract your brain from thinking about smoking (e.g. journal, start packing for work, start writing emails sooner than you normally would, etc.). It will be important to set realistic goals for yourself during this time regarding new habits and also remind yourself why you have chosen to implement these new habits.
Want a fun way to reinforce these habits? Reward them. The brain learns in many ways, one of which is reward based. The ‘reward’ you give yourself should be intentional and something that aligns with your new habit. When you do the new habit and follow it with a ‘reward,’ that reward fires off pleasure signals in your brain which can help that habit be better remembered. If you were able to disrupt your smoking habit and do something else to prevent you from smoking in the morning, you could reward yourself with a piece of candy or maybe a special drink (e.g. coffee, smoothie, etc.) you don’t always get. This reward aligns with your disruption of habit, building a new habit, and attending to the oral stimulation that mimics smoking. An important part of this reward system is to now view ‘slipping back’ to the old habit as failure. Change doesn’t happen overnight for most people, learning from a mistake is as important as learning from a success.
The habit forming process discussed so far is based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral theory addresses how our thoughts, emotions and behaviors interact with each other. It is important to acknowledge that each of these properties (thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) do not flow in one linear way, rather they can all influence each other.
We can break down the CBT in habit forming by understanding:
C (cognitive) - Identifying a goal, and recognizing the habits that accompany that goal. Finding ways to disrupt habits that do not align with your goal, creating new habits, then understanding how to reward yourself for sticking with the new habits.
B (behavior) - The behavior aspect of this process is actually doing what you have set your mind to. Behavior would be the action of changing up your habits and then rewarding yourself for that change.
T (therapy) - While this process is not necessarily therapy, it is a therapeutic technique.
Here is a worksheet to guide you through your habit planning process. The work sheet linked may help provide a visual aid for how you can begin to physically map out your new habits. This is one tool but you are more than free (and encouraged) to find your own process while creating these new habits. Creating and maintaining habits alone can be difficult. It might be helpful to find a partner that aligns with your new goal and create habits you can do together. Another helpful resource for maintaining your new habit is to speak to others about it. Speaking about your goals will help your brain remember the habits tied to that goal. Finally, remember that change takes time and it is okay to ‘slip’ as long as you try again.
Madison Repak, LPC