How to master the process of behavior change and make new habits stick

Giving up on your New Year’s resolutions isn’t inevitable if you have the right tools. According to a University of Scranton study, 23% of people give up on their resolutions after just one week. Yet the same study found that almost 20% of people keep resolutions for the long term. While it can be frustrating to make the same resolutions year after year (or give up altogether), there are things we can do to help build long-term success, by turning resolutions into lasting habits.

Resolutions are just intentions. They help us clarify our goals and give us a sense of direction. Yet, we don’t always succeed at achieving our resolutions. So, how can you make good on your goals and keep your resolutions? By breaking down resolutions into goals, and goals into actionable habits. For example:

  • Resolution (intention) – For example, “I want to be healthier.”
  • Goals (how can I make that happen) – “I want to get active and be more mindful about what I put in my body.”
  • Habits (specific action steps I will take to meet my goals) – “I will exercise in the mornings, cut down on my daily intake of [snacks/drinks/smokes, etc] and eat at least four servings of vegetables a day.”

Habits are the actions we consistently take to reach the goals we have set for ourselves. We’ve put together a list of evidence-based tips to help you create new habits as you move into this new year.

To help you stay motivated and reach your goals in the New Year, we recommend starting with one specific goal and starting small. Start with one habit that’s related to a goal you want to achieve (like fitness or healthy eating) and keep self-compassion in mind as change is rarely linear.

New Habits – Make them Stick

Start with small, gradual changes.

Starting small will help you to move closer to your desired behavior and build from there. Even if you improve at something only 1% every week, the positive changes that will add up over the following weeks and months will be considerable.
It helps to think about our values that can drive us to our goals. When we keep our values in mind, we will find our behaviors that don’t align with them will become less frequent. Plus, when we are clear on what we want out of life and what matters most to us, it becomes easier to set goals based on those values rather than what feels good in the moment.

Do what you can, when you can.

If you are feeling low on time or energy, do as much as you can in that moment. Too tired to go for a run? Walk for 5 minutes instead. Can’t focus enough to meditate for 30 minutes? Do a short 1-minute meditation or breathing exercise instead. Can’t say no to that second glass of wine? Put it in a smaller glass and savor it. Consistency builds habits, even if you don’t go all in, all the time.

Even if you only have 10 minutes in your day, even if you only have 5 minutes at night before bedtime, even if all you can manage is a quick walk around your neighborhood — every bit counts!

Optimize your surroundings.

  • If you want to go to the gym three times a week, don’t limit yourself to one set of workout clothes. Get several sets that make you feel great and keep a gym bag by the door or in your car.
  • If you’re trying to cut back on drinking, keep less alcohol around the house and have a supply of non-alcoholic drinks that are easily accessible.
  • Are you planning to cut back on smoking? Whether cannabis or cigarettes, the same principles apply – modify your surroundings by having one designated smoking area, then avoid that area when you feel a craving or when you’ve had your set limit for the day.
  • Trying to eat healthier? Ensure you have less junk food on hand and more nutritious options that you can prepare ahead of time. In the beginning, you might find it helpful to buy pre-prepared healthy meals (think smoothies, salads, chef’s kits) to help get in the rhythm of eating better.
“Self-control is simple when you understand that it involves putting yourself in the right situations to develop the right habits.”

― Wendy Wood, Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick

Try replacing old habits with new ones.

If you find yourself sliding into a habit you’re trying to change say, after dinner, find a replacement activity such as reading, messaging friends, taking a bath. In this sense, you are also “stacking habits”. Meaning when you pair a new habit (such as reading) with an existing habit (eating dinner), you are more likely to remember to do it and it becomes easier to incorporate into your existing routine. This idea can be used to create any new habit, you basically want to create a “cue” as a reminder.

Another example is creating cues to make the most of your mornings. If you usually doom scroll social media soon after you get up, (and don’t feel great about it), you can set out a travel mug by your kettle (a cue) so in the morning you are prompted to make coffee or tea to go and head out for a morning walk as a more invigorating start to the day. Building cues into your day helps new habits become second nature.

Track your habits.

Journals or any notes app on your phone are great ways to track your mood, triggers, and consumption. This allows you to build awareness around your habits, for example, identifying triggers that may be causing you to revert to old habits.

It also allows you to see the progress you’ve made over time. Keep in mind that progress isn’t always linear. So instead of berating yourself for slipping back into old habits when you’ve had a stressful week or personal setback, look at your success over time. Any positive change counts, even on a small scale. Maybe you haven’t taken up running like you planned to, but you’re scaling more hills on your daily walks with your dog. Progress!

Let someone else know that you are starting a new habit.

Having someone else to hold you accountable can provide support, encouragement, and motivation to continue working towards your goal. If you can get someone to join you in your commitment to a new habit, even better! You can hold each other accountable while having a shared goal in mind.

Reward your successes.

The long-term benefits of healthy habits can often take time for us to notice the results. While you’re waiting for these rewards, find ways to provide yourself with smaller, more immediate rewards to keep up your motivation. (Just make sure they don’t contradict your goals!)

In the longer term, your brain and body will benefit from healthy habits (meditation, exercise, healthy eating.) But the immediate rewards don’t feel quite like eating that second bowl of ice cream or winding down with a beer or joint. So, giving yourself small or even micro rewards goes a long way.
According to a study by the University of Iowa, “More than just a cue”, consuming a small piece of chocolate after working out helps produce neurotransmitters that are comparable to those that will be released as a result of the exercise. Therefore, rewarding yourself after each little success can help you make an action (in this case, exercise) a habit.

Do it for your future self.

In the moment, when we don’t feel like doing something, it’s easy to think “I’ll treat myself this time” or “I will focus on this next week.” But what if we looked at it a bit differently? When you do something that will benefit your future self (a day, a month, a year in the future), you are gifting yourself the benefit of that healthy habit or change. The same can be said for self-care. Sometimes self-care is doing things that will benefit your future self, such as sitting down to finally do your taxes. It may not feel great in the moment, but it benefits you in the future.

So, when you push yourself this month in creating new healthy habits, think about the gift you’re giving yourself, even when it feels hard in the moment. You’ve got this!

“Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.”

― Hal Elrod, Author of The Miracle Morning. 

If you are struggling with behavior change around your substance use:

There are many great online resources to support you on the path of cutting back or quitting altogether. At ALAViDA, we provide a wide range of support options to help you change your relationship with alcohol and other substances. You can access coaching and support options through the TRAiL, plus a wide range of resources to help you reach your goals, including iCBT modules (internet-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), notifications and tracking tools, optional group coaching, and more. Access the ALAViDA TRAiL.