Today is New Year’s Day, which means two things:
1) You’re reading this in bed while nursing a hangover, and
2) You’ve just committed yourself to building some new habits, one of which probably involves drinking less.
I can’t help you with the hangover, but I’ve spent three years learning the science of habit formation and helping people to build a healthier lifestyle.
People usually want tactics and techniques, and I’ve written about those before. But what tends to get overlooked is the importance of mindset. In fact, the biggest differentiator between people who succeed at following through with their new year’s resolutions and people who fail is the mentality they adopt when beginning the process.
Here are five psychological rules you should follow as you follow through on your new year’s resolutions this year.
1. Be the right kind of confident- anticipate adversity
Confidence is usually thought of as something wholly good. In fact, there’s a right way and a wrong way to be confident.
The wrong kind of confidence is based on overly rosy expectations about how challenging things are going to be. I’ve seen this in my clients time and again- they start out thinking that following their new habits is going to be easy, and in fact it is easy for a while. But the very first time they encounter a serious obstacle- family trouble disrupts their gym routine, social gatherings interfere with their meal plan, business travel makes it hard to sleep well– they get discouraged and give up.
The right kind of confidence is based not on an expectation of ease, but a determination to overcome difficulty. People who succeed expect to encounter obstacles. They’ve already determined, before they even begin, that changing their habits will be difficult at times, and that they will persevere through that difficulty.
Self-improvement isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the effort. Step one is setting realistic expectations.
2. Make habits, not decisions
Suppose your New Year’s resolution is to walk 5000 steps per day. There are two ways you can accomplish this.
First, you can take the opportunity to walk more whenever you find an opportunity. You can take the stairs instead of the elevator at work. You can walk to the store when you need to buy groceries. Or you can take a walk around the neighborhood when you have a spare half hour.
The other option is that you can identify a walking route that adds up to about 5000 steps, and take that same walk every day. You might decide to always walk to and from work, or the gym, or take a walk around the neighborhood every evening.
The first option is what most people choose. The problem with that approach is that it requires constant decision-making, which means it places significant demands on your attention, willpower, and your ability to make time in your schedule for the habit you’re building. Humans are cognitive misers; whenever possible, we avoid overthinking our decisions and instead fall back on doing the same things we always do.
The second option blows the first out of the water. It may not be as exciting, but it builds a routine which can more easily fit into your schedule and doesn’t require continual choices on your part. When you follow this approach, your new habit gets easier over time as it starts to become automatic for you, whereas that doesn’t happen when you’re changing things up every day.
Building new habits requires consistency, and consistency doesn’t just mean doing the habit every day- it means doing the habit the same way every day.
3. Treat yourself like a champion
Call yourself lazy and you’ll soon find yourself making excuses not to follow through on your resolutions. Call yourself smart and you’ll be thoughtful, but also expect things to be easy for you- see item 1 for why that’s not necessarily the best thing. Say that you’re driven and hard-working, and you set yourself up for success.
This phenomenon is called the Pygmalion Effect (the negative version is sometimes instead called the Golem Effect), and it causes your self-image to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We tend to become whatever we label ourselves, so you need to label yourself as a winner.
On a related note, you also need to adopt an internal locus of control- meaning that you need to take the view that things are within your control. Unsurprisingly, having an internal locus of control is one of the best predictors of how successful someone will be at reaching their goals.
4. Adopt a growth mindset
The conventional thinking on New Year’s Resolutions is that you should set clear, concrete performance goals. That can work if your goals are very modest, but what if you’re aiming higher? Studies suggest that when you set performance goals, you’re more likely to give up the more aggressive the goal is. These kinds of performance goals can intimidate you out of even trying, and also tend to set you up for disappointment when you realize that self-improvement isn’t easy (again, see item #1).
But what do you do if you’re not focused on performance goals? You adopt a growth mindset. Instead of fixating on the outcome, you focus on becoming the kind of person who gets that outcome. Rather than aiming to lose 20 pounds, aim to be a healthy eater. Instead of getting more work done, become a hard worker.
This requires you to see yourself as fundamentally changeable- to believe that you can truly change not only your behavior, but your abilities and perhaps even your identity. Studies have shown that people with a growth mindset are more successful than people who fixate purely on performance goals- even if the performance-oriented people possess more natural talent.
5. Don’t take breaks until the habit is built
There’s a popular line of thinking which says that if you’re putting serious effort into something, you should occasionally take time off from it to give yourself some rest. According to this line of thought, these breaks provide you a mental “refresh” that helps you to stay more focused and disciplined once the break is over.
This line of thinking is probably correct for big, time-consuming things, and things you’ve been doing for a long time- it’s good to take vacations from work, for instance. But for smaller habits that you’re in the early stages of building, it’s poison.
It takes an average of 66 days to build a new habit- and that’s just an average. Many people need longer, sometimes as much as 8 months. When you take a few days off, you don’t just pause the process; you rewind it, setting yourself back by days or even weeks.
The good news is, this doesn’t last forever. Once the habit becomes automatic, you can take breaks and come back to it- at that point, breaking the habit may be almost as hard as building it in the first place.
But until you reach that point where it’s no longer work to keep your New Year’s Resolution, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by taking any time off. Don’t break the chain.
Be a champion- follow through on your commitments
Most people give up on their New Year’s resolutions within a month. Now you understand why- and you can be different.
Start viewing yourself as a winner. Build consistent habits that you follow every day. Get coaching if you need it.Stick with it for as long as it takes- likely several months. Anticipate difficulty- and determine to persevere through it.
Also published on Medium.