The festive season is coming to an end and, after a couple of weeks of over indulging, out come the New Years resolution lists. If you have one of these lists, whether it be in your head or on paper, you most likely have an unwanted habit you want to give up, a new habit you would like to form, or both. In this post, I am going to explain why you should ditch your long list of everything that you want to change or improve in your life.
When it comes to lifestyle changes, what we are really doing is changing our own habits or behaviours. Us humans are creatures of habit; what we do repeatedly makes us who we are. But what we fail to realise is that we, ourselves, define the limits of what we can and cannot do. Which means that the decision and the motivation to change our behaviours can only come from ourselves.
Many of us have tried and failed to achieve goals or lifestyle changes. Year after year we say to ourselves "this year is the year!" and "new year, new me!". Heres how to make 2016 your most successful year yet.
Set ONE clear goal.
Psychologists have found that you are more likely to succeed if you focus on one goal at a time, rather than taking on a whole list of goals (APA, 2016). This means, you will be more successful at achieving your goals if you focus all of your motivation and willpower to one behaviour change at a time.
Therefore, the first place to start is to chose one goal you want to achieve, define it, and ditch the rest (for now).
If you have ever learnt about goal setting then you would have heard of S.M.A.R.T goals (Doran, 1981).This acronym is a simple, yet effective guide to figuring out exactly what you want to achieve, and how you are going to achieve it. It can help to establish motivation for the change required to achieve your particular goal.
Specific - what exactly is it you want to achieve; and why do you want to achieve it?
Measurable - how will you know that you have achieved your goal?
Achievable - how can you accomplish this goal; and can you see yourself achieving it?
Relevant - is the goal worthwhile; and does it fit in with your other efforts/needs?
Time frame - when will you start; what can you do today; and when will you achieve it?
Now that you have your one goal, it's time to put it into action. Wendy Wood and Dennis Runger (2015) from the Department of Psychology at University of Southern California, recently posted an online review on habits, which will be published in the Annual Review of Psychology this year. In their review, they have pulled together strategies of how to form new habits and disrupt unwanted ones.
Forming New Habits
Once you have figured out exactly what you are going to achieve and how you are going to do it, the next step is to do it, repeatedly. Lifestyle changes, or habits, form as people pursue goals by repeating the same responses in a given context (Wood and Runger, 2015). The formation of a new habit will make it easier to to maintain the new behaviour and to avoid short-term temptations.
Here's how to form a new habit:
Consistently remind yourself of why you want to form the new habit - Reminders of your motivation that made you decide to take action will increase your self-determination and willpower to achieve your goal.
Make a plan of what you need to do to achieve your goal, and do it repeatedly - The only way to achieve your goal is to do what needs to be done to achieve it. The more you do it, the easier and more enjoyable it will become.
Monitor your behaviour and progress towards your end goal - Keep a record of when and how often you are engaging in the behaviour that will achieve your goal. This will help you stay on track, and it will help you notice when you are no longer on track. If you do get off track, acknowledge it, remind yourself of why you started, and carry on.
Reinforce your new behaviour by rewarding yourself - The reward could be as simple as acknowledging the rewards that come with the new habit you have formed, such as, a new dress because your old ones don't fit you anymore, or the fact that you are now fit enough to walk up the hill on your way home without getting puffed.
The best time to create a new habit is when your old ones have been interrupted with major life changes, such as, when you are moving house or changing jobs. Life transitions can provide a window of opportunity to act on your new intentions without the interference of old habits (Wood et al. 2005).
Impeding old habits
When it comes to ditching your old, unwanted habits the one thing you need to remember is that they are automatic, and are triggered by certain environmental or emotional cues (Walker et al. 2014). Which means that an unwanted habit may be difficult to change if you are repeatedly exposed to the emotional or environmental cues that trigger your unwanted habit.
If you are having difficulty in changing an unwanted habit, remember that this does not reflect your continued desire to perform the old behaviour, or a failure of your willpower (Wood and Runger, 2015). Even after new habits have been learned, old memory traces are not necessarily replaced (Bouton et al. 2011). Relapse is a normal process of behaviour change. The key is to be mindful of when you 'slip-up', remember why you are wanting to pursue this goal, and carry on with the same level of motivation as when you started.
Research has indicated several strategies to inhibit old behaviours and prevent them from interfering with new ones:
Involved thinking - This requires you to acknowledge the cue or trigger for the unwanted action or behaviour, and actively tell yourself "don't do it". This strategy works by improving your cognitive control over the habit.
Inhibitory plans - This means planning what you are going to do when you know there will be a cue or trigger for your unwanted action. For example, if your goal is to eat a healthy lunch, you could tell yourself "I am going to make my lunch before bed, so that I have a healthy lunch ready to eat tomorrow, as usual".
Reducing or avoiding cues/triggers -
If your unwanted habit is snacking after dinner while watching TV, it is likely that watching TV is the trigger. Try going for a walk or playing a game with your family instead.
Making yourself believe that "you don't do it" - If you believe that it is 'not like you' to eat takeaways, or chocolate then by default you will be less likely to eat takeaways or chocolate.
By focusing on one goal or behaviour change at a time, you will have more self-determination, willpower, energy or whatever you would like to call it, to avoid the unwanted behaviour you are trying to prevent. The more you do it, the easier it will get.
So the moral of the story is......
Choose one goal and focus on achieving it. Once that goal has become a new habit and no longer requires self control to stick to it, move onto the next. By doing this, you will be achieving your goal and strengthening your willpower, making the next goal easier to achieve.
Happy New Year!
American PsychologIcal Association [APA}. 2016. Harnessing Willpower to Meet Your Goals. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower-fact-sheet.aspx
Bouton. M. E., Todd, T. P., Vurbic, D. & Winterbauer, N. E. 2011. Renewal after the extinction of free operant behaviour. Learning and Behaviour, 39: 57–67
Doran, G. T. (1981). There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives. Management Review (AMA FORUM) 70 (11): 35–36.
Walker, I., Thomas, G. O. & Verplanken, B. 2014. Old habits die hard: travel habit formation and decay during an office relocation. Environment and Behaviour. doi: 10.1177/0013916514549619
Wood, W., Tam, L. & Witt, M.G. 2005. Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88: 918–33.
Wood, W., & Rünger, D. (2015). The psychology of habit. Annual Review of Psychology. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Wendy_Wood2/publication/281679387_Psychology_of_Habit/links/55f6fd9d08aec948c463c369.pdf