The Psychology of New Years Resolutions: How to Make Big Changes That Stick

new years resolution

Do you hear that?

The little voice in your head pleading with you to eat better … to exercise more … to be happier with your life?

It’s a good thing.

Because it means the desire to change is within you.

You just have to figure out how to rip that desire from the inner depths of your brain, bring it to the forefront, and do something with it.

That’s what I’m going to show you how to do in this article.

Why the New Year is the Perfect Time to Change

I’ve read a lot of anti-New-Year’s-resolution articles recently. The general consensus among these naysayers is that you shouldn’t wait until the New Year to make a change.

I disagree.

In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business he says research proves that major life events are often what trigger you to develop healthier habits. Here are some examples:

  • If you or someone you love is getting married, it motivates you to lose weight.
  • If someone you love dies of cancer, it will prompt you to quit smoking.
  • If you have a heart attack, it triggers you to eat healthier and start exercising.

The start of a new year is another example of a life event. It’s a chance to start over with a blank slate. That’s why I completely disagree with the people who say New Year’s resolutions are pointless.

It’s true a lot of people fail to achieve their resolution every year. But at the end of the day, I’m on the same page as Adam Bornstein from Born Fitness, who said:

I’m a supporter of doing whatever works for you.

If you want to create a New Year’s resolution, more power to you. If you don’t, that’s cool too.

Regardless of when you decide to make a change, I’m here to help you figure out how to get it right this time … and create a system that works for you.

So let’s talk about how you get started.

The Science of Healthy Habits

MIT researchers say that all habits have three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward.

A cue is the event that triggers the behavior. For example, when you eat breakfast every day at 7:30 a.m., the time of day is the cue.

A routine is the behavior itself (eating breakfast in this example).

A reward is the benefit you get from the behavior (a full stomach, pleasure from eating that delicious last bite of bacon).

Most of your daily rituals and habits follow this cue-routine-reward methodology. In fact, over 40 percent of the actions you perform each day aren’t actual decisions, but habits, according to a 2006 Duke University research paper.

So the question is: how do you apply this knowledge to turn your bad habits into good ones?

Here’s the answer.

Start Small … Really Small

I talk to a lot of people who want to lose weight. And most of them make the same two HUGE mistakes:

1. They focus on the outcome (weight loss) instead of the behaviors and habits driving those outcomes.

2. They try to change everything at once. In other words, they attempt to overhaul everything they eat, go to the gym every day, etc.

And they almost always fail.

The video below of Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg will help you understand why.

Fogg says you should form “tiny habits,” which make it much easier to create a habit that sticks. He recommends writing the following:

After I __________,

I will _____________.

For example, “After I take a shower, I will eat a healthy breakfast.”

So going back to the cue-routine-reward method I showed you above:

  • “Taking a shower” is the cue.
  • “Eating a healthy breakfast” is the routine.
  • “Feeling better about yourself” or “Having more energy to start your day” is the reward.

Using this method, you don’t have to eat healthy at every meal. Start with just breakfast for a few weeks.

Over time, it gets easier and easier and eventually this “tiny seed” becomes a habit that’s programmed into your brain. And that is the goal here: to create a series of healthy behaviors you start doing automatically.

It’s fascinating, science-backed stuff that really works.

Create Your System

I talked to James Clear, who runs a successful behavior change blog, and he stresses the importance of creating your system.

What this means is simple:

[Tweet “Focus on the journey rather than the end goal.”]

The problem with saying you want to lose 20 pounds within 6 months is when you don’t make the progress you want, it’s likely you’ll get discouraged and give up.

You’ll find that when you direct your energy toward your process, behaviors, and daily action steps, you’ll accomplish your goals faster.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

We all like being comfortable. Here’s the problem with this:

[Tweet “Comfort is the leading cause of complacency and bad habits.”]

Think about the routine you go through every night. For most of us, we work hard during the day, come home and eat dinner, spend time doing more work or taking care of the kids, and relax on the couch watching TV if we’re lucky.

This is what you’ve programmed your brain to do. This is what makes you comfortable.

And because of this, you convince yourself you don’t have any time. When the reality is, you’re not making the time because your current habits are holding you back.

When you’ve been doing the same things over and over, and suddenly you have the opportunity to change everything, your brain will trick you into taking steps to justify your potential failure. It’s called self-handicapping.

Have the courage to leap into the unknown. Take advantage of the opportunity in front of you right now and get started with something small.

Choose a cue, such as doing 10 pushups as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie for breakfast. Then think about that smoothie or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel after you do your pushups. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. That craving will make it easier to make exercise a daily habit. And eventually you’ll break those old routines and form new ones.

What to Do Next

Next time you hear that little voice inside your head, tell it to relax … because you’re doing things different this time.

Choose a behavior you want to change. Identify the trigger or cue (waking up). Start small with your routine (eating a healthy breakfast). And anticipate and enjoy the reward (looking and feeling better).

You got this.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you commit to doing and the small steps you will take TODAY to make it happen.

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  1. Hi Scott,

    I would say a really inspiration post which also suggests you the steps to accomplish your goal. No doubt we don’t like to get out of our comfort zone and that’s where most of the problem starts.

  2. Great post and I agree that New Years is the best time to make a change, but I don’t belive in resolutions as they are a mere wish. I belive that if you set a vision driven goal, build on a desire so strong that you need to do it, that’s when you can turn your wish into a daily routine of positive habits.

    • Interesting perspective, Michael, thanks for sharing. I’m curious to know, how would you describe the difference between a “wish” and a “goal”?

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