What do you want to do differently in 2015? Lose weight? Exercise more? Learn to meditate? Write your novel? Resolving to change a behavior requires overcoming the inertia of habit. And even with determination and motivation, the Force of Will is pathetically weak compared to the Force of Habit. Here are 8 ways to leverage your willpower and turn your resolutions into lasting lifestyle changes.
1) Commit to the journey, not the destination
Rather than focusing on an outcome that may or may not be within your control, focus on the path you’ll take to get there. Replace “I want to lose 10 pounds by March 1st” with “I will do five 30-minute workouts a week, cut out white flour, and eat only at mealtimes.” Commit to specific behaviors and put them on your calendar so you know how they fit into your day.
2) Make it small — then scale up
When you set a goal and meet it, you’re proving to yourself that you’re capable of change. That’s motivating! So start with something you know you can do, such as one minute on the treadmill, one minute of conscious breathing, or rolling out your yoga mat. When that seems easy, add another simple step, then another.
3) Do it in the morning
Stress is like kryptonite for good intentions. After a long, hard day, it’s going to be much harder to stick to your plan of working out, painting, writing, meditating, or whatever. Unless your life is utterly serene, you may want to schedule your new thing for early in the day before the stress has a chance to deplete your willpower.
4) Prepare to succeed
Make it as easy as possible to stick to your goal. Pack your gym bag or lay out your workout clothes the night before. Have the veggies in the fridge and chopped ahead of time so they’re the easy option at the end of a long day at work, when you’re tempted to eat whatever is there. Take time on the weekend to stock your fridge with fresh vegetables or make a big pot of soup for the week ahead.
5) Put it on autopilot
Willpower is puny compared to the force of habit. Hooking your new habit onto something you’re already doing can help transform a new behavior into a routine. Consider what routines are already happening automatically, such as brushing your teeth, eating, making tea, getting up to use the bathroom. Any of these can serve as cues for things like doing five push-ups; taking 10 deep, mindful breaths; or practicing gratitude. Leveraging your brain’s strategy of taking small routines and turning them into bigger ones can help you fast-track a new habit onto autopilot.
6) Understand your triggers
If you’re trying to break a bad habit, like smoking or consuming too much sugar or alcohol, understanding what’s motivating the behavior will get you farther than simply trying to stop. When you feel tempted to engage in the bad habit, practice pausing and getting curious about what’s happening. When you’re tempted to overeat, are you really needing rest? Or support? Or empathy? Close your eyes and turn your awareness inward. Notice your breath, whatever sensations are happening in your body, your emotions, and what’s going on in your mind. When you’ve identified what’s triggering the habit, substitute a healthier behavior that will give you a similar payoff. Watching your breath for ten cycles can be an excellent way of relaxing your nervous system and enabling you to substitute a more satisfying behavior.
7) Hold yourself accountable
Tell your friends, partner, and colleagues about your goal. Tweet it, take photos of yourself doing it, and post them to Facebook and Instagram. Or if that’s not for you, identify who can hold you accountable (it could be a friend, a coach, or health care provider). Email this person once a week and tell them of your progress. Having even one person who believes in what you’re doing improves your odds of success.
8) Meet slip-ups with curiosity and self-compassion
Nobody’s perfect. When you miss the mark, give yourself compassion for being human. Talk to yourself as you would console a friend who was trying to do something hard. Self-compassion will actually get you back on track faster than guilt and shame, and it feels way better. Next, get curious as to what derailed you, so you can plan to avoid it next time. Then double down on your goal.
I’ll be cheering you on.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg, (Random House Publishing, USA, 2012).
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., (Avery, New York, 2012).
Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristen Neff, Ph.D., (William Morrow, USA, 2011).