It's the new year! Around this time, you may be setting intentions to make 2014 the year of key psychological, spiritual and behavioral changes that will make you happier and healthier. You may want to exercise more, watch less TV, spend more time with friends, eat better, start (and stick to) a yoga or meditation practice, finish abandoned projects, be more honest, reconnect with a faith community, drink less, quit smoking, or any other number of goals.
Setting these intentions is an important first step, and the cultural ritual of thinking about and verbalizing your New Year's resolutions will help launch you toward your ambitions with a sense of solidarity, purpose and support. The New Year activates within us our innate knowledge of our capacity for psychological rebirth: It is an opportunity and an invitation to become our best selves.
This striving is valuable in itself, because it means you are reflecting on what is and is not working in your life, or what could work better. It means you value personal growth and healing, and value living your life consciously and actively.
The Psychology of Habit
Now, I am going to assume that you have made New Year's resolutions in the past, and have been unable to keep them. Why? Well that's because, for most of us, forming new habits can actually be quite difficult, especially if they represent huge lifestyle shifts or require a lot of time and effort. You may have heard of the "21-day rule", a popular idea that if you can manage to perform the new habit for 21 days, it will become automatic - so that it actually feels weirder or requires more effort not to do it than to do it. If only it were that simple.
First, the bad news: There is no magic number of days it takes to form a new habit. Depending on who you are and what you're trying to accomplish, forming a new habit can take anywhere between 18 and 245 days! And of course, some habits are harder to form (or break) than others.
The good news: This can work in your favor. The fact that habits are so hard to change means that it's worth the effort and struggle that goes into forming a good one. That good habit will be just as hard to break as the bad ones! And other research shows that your perception of your own willpower is more significant than any supposed "biological limit".
How to Keep Resolutions
Set small goals, both in terms of timeline and scope (i.e., rather than starting with 500 situps a day, try 100 situps every other day.)
Prioritize your goals so that you are not asking too much of yourself at once, or setting yourself to give up on everything just because you've had to let one thing go. Have compassion for yourself when you struggle.
Find a buddy or group with whom you can hold each other accountable.
Reward yourself for doing well.
Make sure to look back occasionally, and not just look forward - survey your accomplishments, how far have you have come, and how much you have changed.
Here are more tips for using emotion to make your resolutions stick.
What has or has not worked for you? Please share your wisdom in the comments section!