Creating Lasting Habits Through the New Year

Written by Beverly Sharifian, APCC

As the start of each new year approaches, most people set resolutions with good intentions. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take longer than a few weeks or a couple of months for well-intentioned people to stop persisting toward their goals. This is usually not a consequence of lacking motivation or enthusiasm for the endeavor. The truth is that most of us have not been taught how to establish healthy habits or set realistic goals. We may have been told what to strive towards, but not how to systematically get the results we want. I will provide some tips below that can increase the likelihood that you will persevere through your goals well beyond the month of January, despite challenges or setbacks that may arise.

“SMART” Goal-Setting

More often than not, people tend to be highly ambitious when they set goals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; having said that, when they don’t meet the expectations they laid out for themselves, they may consider it a failure. This leads to feelings of disappointment and highly increases the odds of giving up. One way to counteract this is to follow the guidelines of “SMART” goal setting. SMART is an acronym that stands for: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Whenever I help clients set goals, we ensure that they meet these criteria, as it helps to measure progress and avoid being too vague.

Let’s look at an example that may be all too relatable for many of us: you were glued to your couch all of 2021 and did not get anywhere near your optimal levels of physical activity. In 2022, you set the intention that you will be more physically active. You tell yourself your goal is to workout at the gym six times a week. The problem with this goal is: 1) you’re attempting to go from one extreme to another; 2) it is not specific enough; 3) you have not set a timeframe for re-assessing the goal. The goal is technically measurable (how many times you end up going to the gym in one week) and relevant (you’re increasing your levels of physical activity); however, it does not meet the rest of the SMART-goal criteria. An improved way of framing this goal would be to state that you are going to work out at the gym three times per week (attainable) for a minimum of 45 minutes (measurable) for the next two weeks (time-based). That way, if you work out for four rather than three days for at least 40 minutes, you will have exceeded your goal. Even if you haven’t met the goal, you will have a structured way of assessing and modifying the goal for better results the next time around.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking

As I mentioned earlier, it can be easy to set yourself up for failure when you attempt to set unrealistic goals or make drastic changes. Imagine if you set out to eat healthier by telling yourself that you will have absolutely no dessert, ever. If you are accustomed to eating sweets almost daily, your cravings and your habits will cause you to give in eventually. I know that if I told myself I could never eat donuts or cake again, I would undoubtedly lose that battle. In order to make your goals realistic, you should strive for gradual as opposed to radical changes.

For instance, rather than vowing to give up dessert (and arguably much of your joy), you would start out by reducing your intake of food items with excessive sugar in them, such as soda. You could set out to reduce your daily soda intake to five times per week, or if you are bordering on a soda addiction, from multiple sodas a day to just one. As you progressed with your goal, you would reduce your intake until you eventually got to a moderate amount of soda in your diet or were able to cut it out completely, if that’s what you wanted. Going from zero to one hundred percent, or vice versa, is rarely going to be viable. Work towards increasing your awareness about what is a sensible first step, temper your expectations, and do your best not to allow distorted thinking to mask the progress you make. Thinking about things in all-or-nothing terms leads to negative emotions. Instead, try celebrating what might seem like minor accomplishments.

Removing Barriers

One of my favorite reads last year was “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. It was simple and provided practical methods for implementing minor, yet enduring change. We have been taught that habits are automatic but haven’t been taught to think of them in terms of cues. Clear encourages readers to use a habit (either neutral or positive) that is already part of your routine as a cue for establishing a new habit. For instance, if you want to begin meditating each morning, you could use your morning shower as a cue. That way, after you perform this automatic behavior (morning shower), you would know that it is time to meditate.

Another crucial aspect for success is removing negative cues, as well as any barriers that would make it unlikely that you will practice your new habit. This would mean that if after your morning shower you generally start scrolling through your phone and lose track of time, you would put your phone on do not disturb mode in a place that’s not within your reach. As a result, you minimize the barriers between you and your morning meditation.

Clear highly emphasizes the importance of removing any potential distractions from your environment- particularly those things that you use to put off what you should be doing. If your phone isn’t within reach, it’s not likely that you will get up and away from the task at hand to get it. Increase barriers between yourself and the thing that you want to avoid doing (the unhealthy habit), which for me translates to not having cake or donuts in the house- although the office is an exception.

What may initially seem like minor changes eventually compound into powerful results. This year, learn to start small, use the momentum to keep pushing forward, and adjust as needed!

Clear, J. (2019). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Penguin Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group.