Habits Over Resolutions

Do you set New Year’s resolutions each year? If so, good for you! Your desire to be your best version of yourself is admirable. However, before you become too married to those resolutions, you should know that most of them don’t pan out. Data on adherence to New Year’s resolutions is kind of all over the place, but some studies have estimated that more than 90 percent of all New Year’s resolutions are abandoned. If you really want to change your life, you need to build some healthy habits.

So what’s the difference between habits and resolutions? And why are habits better? Read on for more info, and a nifty habit tracker.

How are Habits Different from Resolutions?

A key difference between habits and (most) resolutions: Resolutions tend to be goal-oriented. Consider some popular American resolutions:

  • “I want to lose weight this year.”
  • “I’ll exercise more in 2019.”
  • “I plan to have a cleaner house this year.”
  • “I want to spend more time with my loved ones.”

Okay, but now what? How do you get there? This is how resolutions get it wrong from the very beginning. When you don’t make a concrete plan to reach that goal, it’s so easy to put it off and ultimately forget it.

Habits are specific, concrete, routine, and behavior-focused. Merriam-Webster defines a habit as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” When you set a habit, you’re creating a roadmap for reaching your goal. Let’s revisit those resolutions from above from a habits lens:

  • “I’ll eat five servings of vegetables each day.”
  • “I’ll take 3 walk breaks during each work day.”
  • “I’ll set a timer for 10 minutes each day to declutter my home.”
  • “I’ll put my phone in a drawer for one hour each evening to focus on my family.”

Compared to the resolutions above, these habits feel much less…wishy washy. Hopefully, they also seem do-able. And if they don’t? Make a mid-course correction! Tidy for 5 minutes instead of 10, or take one walk per day. The magic comes from the routine.

Do Habits Work?

This all sounds great in theory. But do habits actually work? Let’s look at some research.

In one study of 120 college students:

  • -40 were paid to attend one informational session and allowing researchers to track gym visits. This group was not required to exercise.
  • -40 were paid to attend the same session and have their gym visits tracked, PLUS they had to attend the gym at least once in the month following the informational session.
  • -40 had to adhere to the standards above, but they had to attend the gym EIGHT times in the month following the informational session.

Payments stopped after 1 month for all three groups, but the exercise habit stuck more for the third group. In fact, the third group hit the gym about twice as often as the other two groups in the weeks following the experiment.

Other studies have found that our brain activity changes as actions become habits. One rodent study found that neurons in a decision-making center of the brain were constantly active in mice learning a new task. Over time, though, those same neurons only fired at the beginning and the end of that task. In other words, the task required much less thought and decision over time–the mice just did it.

So to answer our question, habits can absolutely help cement long-term behavior change.

The trick is to create habits that are realistic and intentional. How can you do that?

6 Tips for Building Good Habits

  1. 1. Know your why. Have you ever made a big lifestyle change only to think a few weeks later, “Why am I doing this?” Sucks the winds right out of your sails, no? Having a good reason for your habit helps you stick with it (and, possibly, make the effort to modify your plan) when you hit roadblocks.
  2. 2. Progress is greater than perfection. In other words, don’t become discouraged if you miss a few days when trying to cement a habit. Changing your behavior most days is still a win!
  3. 3. Biting off more than you can chew will most certainly bite you in the you-know-what. Work on a habit that is a small, positive change from your current behavior. If you’re eating two servings of vegetables per day, just add a serving at first! Don’t try to go from two to nine.
  4. 4. Reflect along the way. Are you finding it difficult to stick to your habit? You may need to adjust your expectations. Do you feel like you have more energy, time, and mental space to take on more? Up the ante just a smidge!
  5. 5. Stack your habits. This one comes from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. Think of one of your existing habits. You’re going to use this habit to cue your new habit. Clear recommends the following formula for stacking:“(Before/After) I (Current Habit), I will (New Habit)”For example: “After I set out my gym clothes at night, I will foam roll for 3 minutes.” This strategy ups the odds for success.
  6. 6. Celebrate your victories! Is there anything more satisfying than marking out items on a to-do list? I think not. You can use the same reward system with habits. Here is a printable monthly habit tracker to get you started.


How about you, friends? Any habits you want to work on? Either way, happy and healthy 2019!







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