We all have the best intentions to achieve great things. We want to get fit, eat healthy, meditate more, and not waste time binge-watching the latest Netflix sensation.
We're very good at starting on our goals, but we're not so good at sticking at them. So, what can science tell us about how to avoid slipping back into old habits and make those goals stick?
Firstly, it's important to recognise that any change is inherently difficult. Our brain is hardwired to crave routine and resist change.
One of the reasons why it's hard to stick to new habits is that we still have old ones, which we have to override and sometimes our old habits are in direct competition with the new habits we want to adopt. For example, if we want to create a new habit of going to the gym, we might have to break an old habit like endlessly scrolling on social media, which can be equally challenging. But there are some scientifically-backed tips you can use to help you.
Use the power of habits - not willpower
A habit is a process where a cue automatically triggers an impulse to act. For example, sitting in a car triggers you to wear your seatbelt, or getting ready for bed triggers you to brush your teeth.
The more specific you can be about the cue that will trigger your new desired behaviour, the more likely it'll turn into a habit. Think of something like leaving your gym gear at the front door so you can grab it on your way out.
The key to starting a new habit is finding something that you regularly come in contact with. So, a time of say is a great trigger to use because no matter where you are, it's always going to happen. For example, "at 7:00 AM, I will go for a walk", or "when I finish work, I will think of one thing that went well that day"
The wonderful power of habits is that they kick in and drive our behaviour even when we've lost motivation. So, if you're in a regular habit of meditating for 10 minutes before bed, you will still do it, even when you don't feel like it. No matter how tired, stressed, or sleepless you are, you will always put your seatbelt on in the car - because it's a habit.
The importance of rewards
When we do something that feels good, our brain recognises that reward and prompts us to repeat the rewarding behaviour again.
If feeling strong and healthy is something you want to achieve, it can take a while to see those results. So, a hot tip is build in short-term rewards and always take pride in achieving the small steps along the journey (no matter how small). Every accomplishment should be acknowledged. It could look like taking a moment to feel proud of yourself or an imaginary pat on your back or a smile. The powerful effects of rewards can't be underestimated.
Rewards will motivate you to keep going and help your brain to reinforce the behaviour in your life and eventually turn it into a habit.
Rinse and repeat
I always say that consistency is the secret sauce to creating new habits. The more we repeat a behaviour, the more automatic and habitual it becomes.
Focus on rituals not results
A simple mindset change to see reaching goals as part of a journey can have a huge impact.
Researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Business interviewed 1,600 people around the world who had reached goals such as boosting their fitness or tracking how much they were eating.
Some were asked to think about attaining the goal as "completing a journey" or "reaching a destination", while others didn't receive the same prompts. Those who embraced the journey metaphor were much more likely to stick with their new behaviours.
Seeing goals as a journey gave people a greater sense of personal growth, a feeling of changing and learning over the course of the experience. It was that feeling, in turn, that explained why they stuck to their new habits.
Make it easy and start small
Energy is precious and our brains are designed to conserve it where possible. In other words, we will always default to expending the least amount of energy necessary. So make it as easy as you can for you to embrace your new habits.
I like to say "make your desired habits so small that you can't say no to doing them". Focus on one small thing at a time and be patient with yourself, let your mind figure out a process that works. Every small step is getting you closer to your goal.
Plan for when - not if - obstacles happen
In a perfect world there would be no last-minute work or family commitments or a big dinner or event that might blow out your healthy eating plans. But the reality is, there are always going be things that pop up which could potentially derail your best intentions. So, you should always have a plan ready to put into action.
Think about some of the obstacles you might encounter and create a plan for how you might overcome them before they pop up. If work goes overtime and you miss your gym class, head out for a walk instead.
Small, consistent steps, lead to big achievements. So, keep on keeping on.