Another New Year’s Resolution season is here, meaning that many of us are aiming to make positive changes to our lives (if you’re stuck for ideas we’ve compiled a list of financial goals for 2022 here).
But here's the thing: while it can be fun creating aims for yourself and dreaming of what you can achieve, it can be really difficult to stay motivated once the novelty wears off.
We're creatures of habit and we're very good at staying stuck in our ways.
Brendan Kelly, the author of The Science of Happiness and professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, says that “an extraordinary amount of what we do is habit.” It’s estimated that between 45% and 95% of what we do is habitual, "but I'd reckon towards the higher end of that range”. Right from waking up in the morning, making breakfast and brushing our teeth through to our bedtime routines, we move through much of the day on autopilot.
These little habits build up over time to affect our health and fitness, our success, our relationships and ultimately our happiness.
Habits have such an impact on our entire lives, so why is it so hard to change behaviour? And what can we do to make it easier?
Firstly, we need to understand how habits work.
Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, and an expert on behavioral psychology suggests that most people fail to adopt new habits because they do not understand the structure of habits.
All habits can be broken down into three basic components:
With smoking, for example, the cue could be watching others smoke, craving nicotine, socialising, or an urge to get out. The rewards are nicotine, chit-chat, alone time, or a break from work.
Overspending is another example: the cue might be seeing an offer online or in a shop, the reward being that buying things gives us a temporary mood boost.
Most addictive and destructive habits require little to no input, while many positive habits such as exercise, meditation, focused work, and healthy eating require more effort with no instant gratification (to begin with, anyway). However, after extended practice, positive habits will begin to stimulate your brain in positive ways and you'll feel the reward.
When you're trying to take up a new habit, consider how you can apply cues and rewards:
It could be that you set an alarm that triggers you to exercise, you remove barriers by doing a home workout instead of having to journey to the gym and then you reward yourself with a square of chocolate (it's been proven to work in this study!).
Once you've formed a habit, here are some of the golden rules to follow for making them stick.
Think about the ways that doing this new habit will benefit you.
This will be particularly important for habits that bring you delayed gratification. If, for example, you're trying to become debt-free, think about how it will give you more financial freedom, you could have a more comfortable retirement, more control over your monthly income or improve your credit score.
If you’ve set yourself a challenging goal there may be moments when you start wondering if the habits is really benefiting you, since you're not seeing instant results. Try writing down the reason why you’re doing this and return to it whenever you need reminding.
Small actions are the building blocks of behaviour change.
Make them impossibly easy. That way you'll get into the routine of doing them and there'll be no chance of you giving up. Over time, the building blocks will naturally get bigger. During difficult times, you can always go back to that really small action again, and it won't feel like you've fallen off the wagon.
Remove as many barriers as possible to make it easier to stick to new habits.
For example, you might have made a new year’s resolution to budget better. Many of us find it tedious to manually fill out a spreadsheet, so why not try a budgeting app that does the heavy-lifting for you? Apps like Quirk and Emma use Open Banking to link up all your bank accounts and provide spending and budgeting analysis across the board. You can get into the habit of checking your budget, rather than calculating it.
New habits are easier to stick to when they are tied to old habits. For example, people are more likely to floss if they do it right after brushing their teeth.
If you're someone who has a habit of looking at their phone, it could help to download a habit tracking app such as SnapHabit, Habitica or Done and use it to your advantage. The apps send reminders for you to carry out your new habit, so you can you can transform the distraction into a cue to take action.
You are more likely to achieve a goal if you tell people about it. This is because you are held accountable by the perceived social pressure.
Tell your friends, your family, or share your goals on social media. Apps like SnapHabit let you share your progress with your community and celebrate others' efforts.
Which brings us onto our last point...
According to psychologist BJ Fogg, “emotions create habits. And celebration is the best way to use emotions and create a positive feeling that wires in new habits. You can adopt a new habit faster and more reliably by celebrating at three different times: the moment you remember to do the habit, when you’re doing the habit, and immediately after completing the habit.”
Your celebration can be something you say or do, or just something you think or imagine. A fist pump and a “go on!”, a big smile, or even imagining the roar of a crowd. Whatever works for you!
Reaching big goals will, of course, call for a celebration. But it's celebrating the small wins that will get you there.