How to Crush Your Habits in the New Year With the Help of Science

It’s the shiniest time of year: that hopeful period when we imagine how remarkable — how fit and kind, how fiscally responsible — our future selves could be. And while you may think “new year, new you” is nothing more than a cringey, magazine-cover trope, research supports its legitimacy.

“It’s not like there’s something magical about Dec. 31,” explained Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit.” “What is magical is our mind’s capacity to create new narratives for ourselves, and to look for events as an opportunity to change the narrative.”

One such opportunity? January. Since most of us consider it a fresh start, Mr. Duhigg said New Year’s resolutions can be “very, very powerful” — as long as they’re backed by science, patience and planning.

At the core of every resolution are habits: good ones, bad ones, stop-biting-your-nails ones. So if you want to change yourself, that’s where you need to start. Here are seven science-based strategies for making sure your new habits endure.

Imagine it’s the next New Year’s Eve. What change are you going to be most grateful you made?

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author of “The Willpower Instinct,” suggested asking yourself this question before making any resolutions. “It’s crazy to me how often people work from the opposite,” she said. “They pick some behavior they’ve heard is good for them, and then they try to force it on themselves and hope it will lead to greater health or happiness.”

Sounds familiar, right? To avoid that trap, Dr. McGonigal recommended reflecting on what changes would make you happiest, then picking a “theme” for your year. That way, even if a particular habit doesn’t stick, your overarching intention will.

Take the theme of reducing stress, for example. You might try meditating and hate it. But, since your goal wasn’t “meditate 10 minutes a day,” you don’t have to abandon the resolution completely. Maybe you try yoga next.

Electing a unifying theme will also stimulate your brain to look for additional opportunities to advance your goal, said Dr. McGonigal, whereas narrowing yourself to a single behavior will cause your brain to “shut off once you check it off the list.”

According to Mr. Duhigg, research shows that rather than “breaking” bad habits, you should attempt to transform them into better ones. To do so, you need to determine your habit’s trigger (cue) and reward, and then find a new behavior that satisfies both.

While Mr. Duhigg said cues usually fall into one of five categories — time, location, people, emotion or ritual — rewards are more difficult to ascertain. Do you always get an afternoon snack because you’re hungry? Because you’re bored? Or is it because you’re starved for office gossip? To determine an effective replacement habit, it’s vital to understand what reward you crave.

“Any habit can be diagnosed and shifted,” Mr. Duhigg said. “You need to give yourself time to really figure out the cues and rewards that are driving that behavior — and oftentimes the only way … is through a process of experimentation.”

You may have heard the key to habit formation is starting small. But you’ve likely never considered starting as small as James Clear suggests in his new book “Atomic Habits.”

His “two-minute rule” prescribes only completing the outset of any new habit. So if you want to read a book a month, you read a page a day. If you want to play the piano, you sit at the bench and open your songbook.

Although he admitted it might sound frivolous, Mr. Clear said mastering “the art of showing up” helps put a behavior on autopilot. He shared the story of one man who drove to the gym every day, then exercised for a few minutes before going home. By performing that seemingly futile action for six weeks, Mr. Clear said the man slowly became “the type of person who works out every day.”

For a habit to abide, it must have immediate rewards. But before you go buying a smoothie after every workout, note that, according to Dr. McGonigal, the most effective rewards are intrinsic, or the ones you feel, not the ones you procure.

So maybe, instead of that frozen strawberry-kale-hemp delight, you simply notice the renewed energy you have after lifting weights. Or the pride you feel when you don’t smoke cigarettes. Naming the payoff, she said, helps your brain build positive associations with the activity.

If you can’t find an intrinsic reward, it might not be the right habit. You shouldn’t, obviously, volunteer to build trails if you dislike being outside. If your goal is to give back to your community, volunteer with animals or at a homeless shelter instead. “Choose the form of the habit that brings you joy in the moment,” Mr. Clear added. “Because if it has some immediate satisfaction, you’ll be much more likely to repeat it in the future.”

We humans are weak. Which means environment design is our “best lever” for improving habits, according to Mr. Clear.

“The people who exhibit the most self-control are not actually those who have superhuman willpower,” he explained. “They’re the people who are tempted the least.” If you want to save more money, unfollow retailers’ social media accounts. If you want to watch less mindless television, unplug your TV. Dr. McGonigal also recommended displaying physical reminders of your goals — yes, that includes motivational Post-its.

Your environment encompasses the people around you, too. Mr. Clear suggested finding a group “where your desired behavior is the normal behavior,” and then forging friendships with its members (which will really get the habit to stick).

Despite your best intentions, chances are you’ll fail at some point along your new-year-new-you journey.

“The question isn’t ‘Are you going to be able to avoid that?’” said Mr. Duhigg. “The question is ‘What are you going to do next?’” If you have a recovery plan, or if you can learn from your failure, he said you’re “much more likely to succeed” in your goal.

So write down the obstacles you foresee and how you’ll surmount them. If you’re trying to drink less wine, for example, you should probably outline a plan for after your mother-in-law’s next visit.

Also effective, said Dr. McGonigal, is sharing your goals with other people, and then telling them how best to support you. By “outsourcing your willpower,” she explained, others can “hold your intention” for you, “even when you’re exhausted or you’re feeling really stressed out.”

Cake might only be for special occasions, but celebrations are for every day. Science says so.

“Celebration is one of the emotions that propel people further on the path of positive habits,” said Dr. McGonigal. Celebrating tells your brain a behavior is beneficial, and that it should look for more opportunities to engage in it.

The celebrations don’t have to be grand. If you finally study for your licensing exam, tell your co-worker. If you survive a tough workout, take a sweaty selfie. Dr. McGonigal said celebrations can actually change your memory of a particular experience, making it more positive than it was. “And that makes you more likely to choose to do it again in the future,” she added. Taking it a step further, you can send yourself a thank-you letter or FutureMe email expressing gratitude for your new habit.

That gratitude and that authentic pride, along with hope, social connection and compassion, are the most effective emotions for promoting long-lasting behavior change, according to Dr. McGonigal. The least effective are shame, guilt and fear.

So even if you stumble when forming your new habit — which research says you probably will — be kind to yourself. Although big, long-term change isn’t easy, it is possible. “Habits are not a finish line to be crossed,” said Mr. Clear. “They’re a lifestyle to be lived.”

by Susan Shain

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