Forming New Habits in the New Year
New Year, new resolutions. Most of us start thinking about and planning our new year’s resolutions just after Christmas. Either getting a new job, staying fit or eating healthier, some resolutions are easier to forget than others. In fact, less than 25% of people stay committed to their resolutions after 30 days!
So how can I stay committed with my resolutions?
Forming new habits is key to long-term behaviour change. In order to form healthier behaviours and break unhealthy ones, we need to be able to become self-aware about how behaviour works. Habits are just learnt behaviours that we’ve become accustomed to doing over time, and most of the time we don’t even realise we’re actually doing them.
So how do we form them?
First, we need to understand how habits work because if we don’t then it’s very difficult to build ones that last. Essentially all habits work the same way. It all starts with a cue, something that triggers a response that we act on which leads to some sort of reward. This is known as the habit loop system and the more we do the behaviour, the more the “loop” gets reinforced until eventually, it all becomes automated.
For example, consider someone who’s walking down the street and suddenly they sense a smell (Cue) of their favourite food. The smell triggers a craving to seek out the food and before you know it, they’re getting stuck into a full-size pizza! (reward).
Now consider if the same person, walks the same street and every day gets triggered by the same cue, can you see how easy it is to fall into the same patterns of behaviour and eventually form an unhealthy habit?
This is why it is important to notice the cue that triggers us during our day. Cues can be many things: emotions we feel, the people we are with and the environments we spend most of our time in. All can impact how we behave and how we act over time. That’s why it’s important to notice what the cues are first and set your own triggers that are aligned with your goals. For that, we need to build our very own habit systems.
Building new habit systems
To build new habits, it’s important to start small. If you try to consciously remember your new habit, it won’t work. It’s best to build a new habit on top of a behaviour you’re already doing. The best way we can give ourselves the highest chances of success is when the behaviour occurs after something that you already do – an anchor habit.
An anchor habit is a built-in habit system, things you naturally do without thinking about it anymore, like, putting on your shoes after your socks or brushing your teeth after you wake up. You’ve done these so often now that your brain has wired these behaviours to be an automatic response we don’t even notice we’re doing.
The system is simple: you add a tiny behaviour to something you’re already doing naturally. For example, have a go at building some new habit systems using the format below:
When/After I [CURRENT HABIT/ACTIVITY], I will [NEW HABIT/ACTIVITY]
Below I’ve left examples to give you some ideas if you’re unsure where to start.
- After I make my breakfast, I will eat a piece of fruit
- When I get my morning break, I will drink a full glass of water
- After I open my laptop, I will drink a full glass of water
- When I get home at night, I will make my lunch for the next day
- After I eat my breakfast, I will go for a ten-minute walk
- When I get my lunch break, I will walk outside for 15 minutes
- When I arrive home, I will put on my trainers and walk around the block
- After I come downstairs, I will do 5 press-ups
- When I get into work, I will take the stairs.
Can you see how easier this is if we start building new habits on top of current habits we’re already doing naturally? Staying consistent becomes much more achievable when we start small as opposed to changing too many things at once.
Track your habits
Track your progress
Once you’ve set up your new habit system, one of the best ways to keep yourself accountable is to track your progress.
Write down a list of new habits you want to build and tick each day  when you complete a habit or mark [X] when you don’t.
At the end of the week, you can give yourself a percentage and try to beat or equal this the following week.
Remember if you miss a day or two that’s not a big deal. Aim for progress, not perfection.
We’ve created a pdf version of the Habits tracker that you can download here.
Reward yourself each time
Lastly, it’s important that your brain associates the new behaviour with pleasure. Habits exist because rewards await them. The great thing is, the magnitude of the reward doesn’t matter for small actions.
Little rewards, like patting yourself on the back or high-fiving your partner can be enough to reinforce the habit loop and rewire your brain. Make sure to finish with a reward that resonates with you either way.