Dawn Bradley

How To Get New Year Resolutions & Habits To Stick

Before you commit to a New Year’s resolution that might fail before February, I’d encourage you to read about tools and techniques that will give you the best chance of sticking to your new habits.

  • Make the habits to become so natural that you don’t have to think about doing them
  • Most resolutions are just too big. Instead set yourself micro habits and just do two or three small things for the first quarter of the year
  • There needs to be a path to actually achieving what you’re looking to do

The scientific evidence is based on neuroplasticity, which is changing brain pathways. Neuroplasticity is something that we have throughout our life but happens less as we get older, unless we are purposefully putting our brain through change, like when we attempt a big New Year’s resolution or a micro habit.

Neuroplasticity is basically the flexibility of the brain. The brain has the ability to grow and change throughout life at any age, any stage, and any mindset. It’s important for us as humans to understand that this is possible and that part of achieving our resolutions is believing that they’re possible.

If you don’t think that you can do something, then it’s going to feel harder, and you’re more likely to give up. But if you know that you have this amazing capacity in your brain to change your habits, and you can give yourself examples of yourself having done that or somebody else that you know has achieved a habit that you’d like to achieve, then it actually makes it easier for the brain.

If you are fighting with your brain because you don’t think something’s possible, then the brain is more likely to give up trying to help you stay on the right path.

Firstly we need to get more specific with our goals

“I want to be healthier” or “I want to lose weight” are quite big and vague goals. So let’s look at the weight loss goal. If you want to lose weight, then attaching a number to that makes it more specific.

And then instead of focusing on that as your New Year’s resolution, write down 3 to 6 micro habits that you will work on, because however many micro habits we choose, some of them won’t work. So choose a couple of extra things that you will do differently that will help you to lose weight. Very, very specific things, whether it’s, I’ll only eat between 12 noon and 8:00 PM or I won’t eat, certain types of food.

Then start to really actively bring three of those things into your life for the first quarter of the year. And then after the first three months, bring in another two or three things that might help. Such as increasing your step count or reducing your alcohol intake.

Choose really specific small things that you are really confident that you can do, and also set them for a shorter timeframe so that you can hold yourself accountable. Accountability is a big part of it, and a year is a long time to check how you’re going. You can have milestones, but it’s easier to lose track and give up on things if it’s such a long period of time.

Change is hard!

You can’t undo a habit that’s in your brain, but you can overwrite it with a new desired one, and that’s basically by using repetition and practice. There is a four-step process, which literally overwrites pathways in your brain. It’s actually physically hard work for the brain, which is helpful to know when you’re changing a habit and you feel like giving up.

It’s like building a brick wall. It’s manual labour for your brain and that’s why it can be tiring. It can make you more hungry. It can make you have thoughts about wanting to give up because your brain is tired from using up so much energy to create this new pathway.

Understanding this fact can help you to get over the humps that may arise along the way.

When you are changing a habit, even if it’s an intangible one, physical work is going on in your brain; and even though your brain is only a tiny percentage of your body weight, it’s the most energy-hungry organ in the body, and change is going to demand more energy. The resources for the brain are glucose from the breakdown products of a healthy balanced diet and oxygen, so basically eating right and breathing is important in terms of achieving our New Year’s resolutions. 

Sustainable change is driven by four main factors

1. Raising awareness

It starts with raised awareness. Let’s continue with the goal of losing weight. You have to be very clear about the beliefs that you hold around your health and your weight, the sort of thoughts that you have, and the potentially self-sabotaging behaviours that you’re indulging in.

Then decide which one or ones you need to change, and decide what the new desired behaviour is that you are going to override that with. 

2. Focused attention

Then the second step is focused attention. So you don’t just jump straight into “I need to stop eating the whole bar of chocolate, and I’m just going to try and do that straight away”. 

You notice every day for a week or even a month, what is it that pushes you to eat that entire bar of chocolate? What is the stressor that is causing you to do that? And when do you not do it successfully? What’s the environment that’s helping you to just have one square of chocolate instead of the whole bar?

With these 2 steps you are halfway there.

3. Deliberate and repetitive practice

The third part is deliberate practice, where you literally force yourself to behave in a new way until it becomes your new habit. So every single day when you go to get that bar of chocolate, you only have one piece, and you keep doing that for as long as you can. IT WILL BE DIFFICULT and tiring for your brain, and you will simply have to be strong with yourself and tough it out… and you might lapse.

If one day, say 10 days in, you eat the whole bar. This is where people go wrong. They think, okay, I’ve failed at that, so I might as well go back to eating a whole bar every day. 

No! Do not quit at this stage! Just start again. 

So from the next day, have one square of chocolate and start the whole process again. Until that becomes sustainable, and as we discussed, that will feel like hard work, but there is a tipping point where you build this new neural pathway in your brain.

And then stopping after one square of chocolate is your new habit. 

4. Accountability

The fourth part is accountability. Another reason that people don’t achieve their New Year’s resolutions is that the only person holding them accountable is themselves. So it’s very easy to persuade yourself that, oh, it’s okay actually to have a whole bar of chocolate every night.

I tried not to do it, but it didn’t work, and so I’ll just go back to doing that. Nobody will know.

So tell a close friend or family member about your goal. Someone who you can trust to support you and not put you down. You might like to announce your goal on your social media page. Any way that feels supportive to you so that you have accountability. Working with a life coach is a great way to do this because they are trained to keep you accountable!*

Learning the habit of making micro changes will get your brain into the habit of learning new things and make it that little bit easier to change some of your other habits

This was a glimpse into the world of neuroplasticity, change and learning taken from the Zoe podcast interview with Medical Doctor and neuroscientist Tara Swart, and Nutritional scientist Sarah Berry. You can listen to the full episode here

* I have created workbooks that are designed to help you identify, set and track your goals on a daily basis. They will also help you to identify and overcome self-sabotaging behaviour, like procrastination.