While the start of a new year can feel like the perfect opportunity to commence habits that support wellbeing, the term New Year’s resolutions can be met with a groan. Because let’s be real, a lot of the time new year resolutions don’t actually get that far. In fact, most people give up on their New Year’s resolutions by January 17!
So the key to achieving your goals is to create tangible resolutions you’ll actually stick to—and according to happiness expert and New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, certain techniques can help you along the way without it feeling like a chore.
1. Look to the past for helpful clues
While resolutions are inherently future-focused, reflecting on the past can help you identify what works for you and (most importantly) what doesn’t.
“The key is this idea of self-knowledge,” says Rubin. “You could ask yourself questions like when was there a time when you’ve succeeded in the past?” So let’s say your goal this year is to exercise more consistently: Ask yourself – have you ever exercised consistently? “Maybe the past has a clue,” she notes. “Maybe there’s something that was true in the past that [you] could bring into the future.”
Maybe in the past you have enjoyed working out with a friend, but you find waking up to go on a solo run more challenging. That past experience could be a clue that you thrive when exercising with others, so signing up for classes or getting a workout buddy might help you to better reach these goals.
Or maybe in the past you felt more energised after an evening workout than an early morning sweat? Previous experiences may help you identify the time of day that might help the habit stick. In other words:
Reflect on your past, and you’ll have a better grasp of how you’ll act in the future.
As Rubin notes, you’re much better giving attention to what actually works for you.
2. Make your resolution a habit
After you think about what may or may not have worked for you in the past, the key is of course, figuring out how to make the new goal stick. According to Rubin, it’s helpful to treat any new goal as a habit: “The thing about habits is they are so helpful to us,” she says. “They put a behaviour on autopilot.” And once those actions start to feel like second nature, it’s easier to make them a permanent part of your routine.
“Habits are absolutely crucial,” Rubin explains. “Research suggests that about 40% of what we do every day is governed by habits.”
As for how to create a habit that lasts, she shares that it really depends on the person: “There’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for how you want to set up a habit, whether you do it in the morning, afternoon, or night. People are going to differ on when they feel most productive, creative, and energetic.”
The key is learning what works for you (that’s where the past reflection point comes in handy!) and testing different methods to see what sticks.
3. Track your progress
Your brain loves rewards, so celebrate your small wins! In fact, Rubin notes that tracking your progress can help kick-start change: “If you monitor a behaviour, you tend to start to do a better job with that behaviour – even if you’re not consciously trying to change,” she says.
Further, tracking these behaviours in a journal can be even more reinforcing – she even offers a Don’t Break the Chain habit tracker on her website to help people master their habits. “When people do something every day, it goes onto autopilot that much more easily,” she says. “Many people find this ‘don’t break the chain’ approach to be really helpful because once they get that streak going, they don’t want to break it. They want the satisfaction of keeping it going.” Even the act of monitoring is a helpful reminder that you set this goal for a reason – it helps you remember the why behind your resolutions, which many people tend to forget after the first few days of January.
4. Do it with grace
And if some of your new resolutions don’t work out? Show compassion to yourself; you might just need to try a different approach. “Sometimes, people get discouraged when something that works really well for someone else doesn’t work for them, and they think, What’s wrong with me? I should just try harder and try it again.”
But rather, she suggests saying to yourself: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’ve learned something about myself and I’ll try something different next time.”