New Year, New Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick

| Health and Wellness

Professional woman writing on sticky note


Have you made New Year’s resolutions? Many Canadians do, setting optimistic goals to exercise more, eat a healthier diet, save money, and so on. Unfortunately, research has shown that 80% of people fail at their resolutions before the end of February. The reasons vary, but many of them boil down to this: changing habits is hard.

Why do resolutions fail?

Wanting to make a change is just the first step. Without a plan for how to change, we may become discouraged and quickly revert to old habits and routines. Here are common reasons why resolutions are abandoned, and how you can improve your chances of success.

  1. The goal is unclear, unrealistic or too large. Every January, people declare they will be happier, be healthier, etc. But what does that look like? Think about what you want to change and why. “Be healthier” could mean eating a nutritious diet or exercising more, so you can reduce your risk of disease or reach a healthy weight. Be specific about how you’ll accomplish this. Will you cook healthy dishes more often? Will you exercise three times a week? Write down your goals in detail.
  2. Trying to change too much at once. Too often, people give up on resolutions because they feel overwhelmed. Start with small, achievable changes and build on them week after week. The other key is to focus on changing just one habit at a time. Don’t try to overhaul your entire life.
  3. 3. Not identifying triggers. Habits have four stages: cue, craving, response and reward. Our brains are constantly on the lookout for cues, which can take many forms: locations, people, actions, moods, etc. When we encounter a cue, it triggers our craving for a reward. How we respond is the habit – it’s what we do to get the reward and satisfy the craving. To break habits, we need to recognize and avoid cues and provide alternative rewards. Easier said than done! That’s why preparation and planning are so important.
  4. Not tracking progress. If you don’t keep a record of your actions, you won’t know for sure what’s helping (and what isn’t). Over time, you may lose track of your efforts altogether. Make notes daily or weekly in a notebook or journal, or use a note-taking app. Review your progress regularly. Re-commit to your goal often, and tweak your plan as needed. When you reach a milestone goal, reward yourself.
  5. Not planning for setbacks. Think about possible barriers and obstacles and how you’ll handle them if they arise. If things aren’t going as well as you’d like, that’s okay. Changing habits takes time, and sometimes life gets in the way of our intentions. Be patient, learn from the experience and get back on track as soon as you can. Revisit your plan and make adjustments, if that’s helpful. Rally support from friends and family.

Set yourself up for success

Here are a few more ways to stick with your goals:

Find an accountability partner. Ask a friend or relative for support and update them on your progress. If your friend also wants to change a habit, you can motivate each other.

Use visual reminders. Write yourself notes and post them where you’ll see them – on the fridge, on the bathroom mirror, at your desk, etc.

Take advantage of technology. Set notifications on your computer or smartphone. Wearable fitness trackers are also helpful, with their reminders to stand up, take breaks or go for a walk. You can also try habit tracking apps such as Momentum, StickK and Habitshare.

Practise mindfulness. Mindfulness means being present in the moment and becoming more aware of your thoughts, emotions and behaviours – including those that contribute to unhealthy cravings and habits. Learn more about mindfulness and meditation.

Get more support. If it’s suitable for your goals, consider joining a support group or an online forum, or seeking a professional (for example, a counsellor, registered dietitian, fitness trainer, etc.).

Alternatives to making resolutions

If you don’t like making New Year’s resolutions, try one of these other approaches to self-improvement:

Start journalling: Writing down your thoughts daily or weekly can help you reflect on experiences, process emotions, cultivate gratitude and work towards goals.

Learn a skill: This year, challenge yourself or pursue a personal interest. Lifelong learning is good for the brain.

Choose a theme or word: Identify a priority that you’d like to focus on this year. For example, you might choose health, fitness, family, finances or fun.

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