How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions
Seeing off bad habits is no mean feat – so try these hacks from behavioural psychologist Dr Sean Young.
Christmas cheer, where have you gone? Such a hard thing to find in the depths of January, when the waist seems to expand in direct proportion to the rate at which the bank balance contracts. It’s also the month when we decide to make lifestyle changes. Changes that will invariably be discarded first thing February – if we even make it that far. A 2012 study by the University of Scranton suggested that only eight per cent of people ever go on to keep their New Year’s resolutions, and 80 per cent of New Year’s resolutions don’t last beyond January. So why do our best intentions always seem to go the way of our Christmas trees – into the skip?
According to Dr Sean Young’s book Stick With It, the answer is not to change the person, but the process by which we attempt to form new habits. “We tell ourselves that we must eat differently and exercise more, and to stop procrastinating,“ says Dr Young, a professor at UCLA medical school. “And when we don’t, we tell ourselves that we are lazy and not motivated.”
Over the past 15 years, Dr Young has worked with some of the top minds in medical science, uncovering what he believes are the psychological forces that underpin behavioural change. Here, then, are three key tips for forging new habits.
Dr Sean Young
01. Make it easy
“Make something easier to do than not do,” says Dr Young. “When I changed office, I stopped going to the gym as much because it was now more than 15 minutes away. So I changed my gym to the one that’s outside of my new office. I can now see my gym before I get into my car, and I always make sure I carry my gym kit with me. I now go several times a week. Think about the behaviour you want to change and strip down its complexity to make it as easy as possible for you to stick to it. Don’t just rely on willpower.”
02. Step ladders
Starting with small, incremental steps, it seems, offers us the neurological rewards that keep us coming back for more. “I have a friend who was in the US Army and had completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and decided to run a marathon,” says Dr Young. “A physically fit, motivated and disciplined person, he was someone you’d think had the exact ingredients required to complete a marathon. But he gets to the 19th mile and collapses. This was because he didn’t train for the marathon. He now says he’s done with marathons for the rest of his life. All of us do stuff like that. Scientists studying behavioural economics have a phenomenon they call ‘intemporal choice’ or ‘delay discounting’, whereby people assign more value to smaller, quick rewards over larger, more delayed rewards. So instead of saying, ‘I’m going exercise five days per week’ say that you’ll exercise one day per month.”
Most self-help books and psychotherapists say you have to change what’s going on in your mind before you can change your behaviour. But Dr Young believes that even subtle changes in behaviour can change the way you think about yourself, thereby making it easier to form new and lasting habits. “Neurohacks are quick ways in which we can reset the brain,“ he says. “Before, we were told that thoughts follow behaviour, but we now know that behaviour is capable of changing the way we think. A friend of mine was able to stop smoking simply by changing his computer password to Quit@stopsmoking4ever. That was five years ago, and he has not smoked since.”
Stick With It: The Science Of Lasting Behaviour (Penguin) is out now