Routine Over Resolution: How Creating Habits Can Help You Achieve Your Goals This Year

As the new year approaches, it’s likely many of you are thinking about setting new goals. 45% of Americans make at least one New Year’s Resolution in January. Research shows that only around 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals, with around 80% of resolutions failing by February.

I’ve spoken with people who describe their success in terms of how much—or little—motivation or willpower they have at any point in time. But the factor that goes largely unrecognized as a huge part of success is habits. When we make resolutions, our brain actually works against us—despite our heart being in the right place. Changing—or creating—habits with resolutions doesn’t take into account how the brain actually works and sets the majority of us up for failure.

Have you had a habit that you just couldn’t break, like biting your nails? Or perhaps a habit that is pleasurable, like your cup of coffee in the morning? How did those habits begin? Some habits, such as our bedtime, morning routine and diet, are seen as simply routine; however, the impact they can have on our lives and success can be profound.

Here are things to consider this year in place of New Year’s Resolutions:

1. Understanding where bad habits start can help you stomp them out, as well as put healthy, positive new ones in place

Habits are made up of 3 key components:
1. A cue
2. A routine
3. A reward

A cue is something that triggers a habit, like an event, feeling, or person. A routine consists of the behavior that follows after the trigger. Consequently, the reward is the positive reinforcement your brain associates with the routine just completed. If you can identify the cue for your bad habit (like when your boss stresses you out, you go outside to smoke a cigarette) you will be better able to control your behavior. Similarly, if you want to start a habit, introducing and reinforcing a cue is critical.

2. Feelings matter

The part of the brain that makes us want to seek instant gratification and avoid negative feelings is not the part of the brain that will help us with our goals or resolutions. A calculated response to negative feelings orchestrated by the prefrontal cortex (home of executive function) is required in order to manage the challenge and unpleasantry that so often sabotage our efforts.

How might this look in practice? Take the typical pitfalls of wanting to get up early to work out or go running. Your alarm goes off and immediately you have decisions to make. Should I get up? It’s cold outside. I could go tomorrow. Or the next day. What if I’m still sore from yesterday? Where are my clothes, I wish I would’ve set them out last night… More than likely, you’re not going running.

But let’s say you decide you’re going to sleep in your running clothes, lay your shoes (with socks inside) next to the bed, mentally go through the workout routine in detail the night before. When you begin to reduce the number of decisions in front of you, the task at hand becomes easier. There’s something about putting athletic shoes on that gives momentum—try putting your ‘running shoes’ on in whatever area you’re trying to create a habit. That first step tends to create the momentum you need to cement your new habit.

3. Turn your lists into blueprints by using a planner

Your brain can see and plan into the future, but not nearly as far as you probably would like. In order to make sure everything you need to do fits perfectly together into your own personal to-do puzzle, a list just isn’t going to cut it. Your brain performs a particular type of ‘If______, then______’ processing when thinking about upcoming future tasks. As a result of having gone through such a mental visualization (essentially mental time travel) you are more likely to successfully execute the task when it’s time to do so. By spatially arranging your day in a planner rather than simply creating lists, you are more likely to effectively carry out your day and problem solve. As you create, carry out, and problem solve your plan as a habit cue, your brain will receive a reward for completing the task. Now you’re even closer to creating another productive habit.

This year, consider ways to set yourself up with positive, healthy long-term habits in order to reach your goals and achieve positive feelings. Try to avoid New Year’s Resolutions that only serve to evoke feelings of failure and return to old habits.

Posted in Adults, Articles, Executive Function.