According to U.S. News and World Report, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February (!!!). There are several reasons for this. One of them is in the name–resolution. If you have to use your resolve to do something, once it’s gone the new habit will fall away too. Willpower is a finite and precious resource; when we have to make decisions or do things we don’t want to do throughout the day, we use it up. That’s why we often end up sliding back into old habits in the evening–like binging on shows or ice cream–because we’ve already burned through the day’s supply of willpower.
To integrate a new habit successfully, you need to set things up so you don’t have to rely on willpower at all. Instead of planning to get up at 5 am every day to go to the gym by yourself, enlist a friend to be your workout buddy or pay in advance for sessions with a personal trainer so you’re accountable to someone else.
We often make resolutions with a picture of our ideal state in mind, but whatever system you put into place needs to work on your lowest days. This means defining a clear minimum that will work at your baseline. If you’re writing a book, how many hours can you expect yourself to write on a week when your kids are sick and you’ve been up several nights taking care of them while working full-time? Defining a realistic minimum will set you up for success, since you can hit it even when you’re at your worst. It’s much better to feel like a rock star because you wrote for 10 minutes on your worst day than to constantly feel like you’re failing because you’ve never been able to write for three hours, even on your best day. Setting up an achievable minimum enables you to feel successful, which creates a virtuous cycle where you want to engage the new habit more.
Create an environment that automatically triggers you to do the things you want to do. A friend of mine put his meditation cushion in the hallway of his apartment so it would be in his way after using the bathroom first thing in the morning; he sits and practices then. Setting up alarms in your phone to prompt you to do yoga or take out the recycling can be helpful too, or using a checklist so you don’t have to rely on memory. I use the coach.me app to keep track of my daily practices so that instead of wondering what I’m supposed to do next I just scroll through the list.
Identify your priorities and create regular containers for them in your schedule. I had wanted to update my will for a while but that task kept sitting on my list without any forward movement. I mentioned this to a friend of mine on our weekly walk and she was in the same boat, so we decided to take 20 minutes after each walk to chip away at end-of-life plans. Having a regular container for projects eliminates the anxiety of wondering when they’re going to get done, and frees up that energy to work on them. We often think that we need huge chunks of time to do things, so we don’t use the smaller chunks that are available to us. But it’s amazing what you can accomplish in a year’s worth of 20-minute increments. Making time on a regular basis also keeps those projects top of mind, so the inspiration keeps flowing and solutions emerge organically while moving through your day-to-day routine.