Create New Habits — or Break Bad Ones — in the New Year

| December 10, 2012

list of new year's resolutions Whether you want to form a new habit or break a bad habit, Jan. 1 is an exciting day to embark on a new challenge. We all get a fresh start with the beginning of a new year. But setting out to create a new habit or break a bad one is easier said than done, even if you’re getting help from a professional, such as a nutritionist or personal trainer. Learning about habits can give you insights that will help you set yourself up for success.

Practice, practice, practice

Remember the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! Alas, it’s true. You’ll frequently read that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but researchers at University College London have determined that a better estimate is 66 days. That means your New Year’s resolution has a better chance of sticking around if you can keep it until at least March 6.

The University College London psychologists define a habit as a “learned action” that’s “triggered automatically” when you encounter a certain situation. They call this “context-dependent repetition.” When you repeat a behavior under certain conditions, the link between the behavior and the conditions becomes stronger in your mind. The behavior becomes almost automatic when you encounter a certain environment. For instance, people who only smoke cigarettes when they drink alcohol do so because of context-dependent repetition.

How can you use this knowledge to your advantage? Say you frequently forget to take a daily medication. Try tying the act of tacking that medication to another habit already ingrained in your system—brushing your teeth, for instance. If you start taking your pill when you brush your teeth, it will simply become a part of the routine. (This works for flossing, too. Your dentist will be very happy.)

Keep score with help from Ben Franklin

Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home) has inspired millions of people to embark on their own “happiness projects” or quests to form positive habits that improve self-esteem, home environments, and relationships with family and friends. The tool that Rubin used to track her own happiness project was inspired by a resolutions chart kept by none other than founding father Benjamin Franklin. On her blog, Rubin describes how Franklin scored himself each day on 13 virtues that he wanted to cultivate within himself. By keeping her own Franklin-inspired chart, Rubin writes, she was able to see which resolutions she was likely to keep and which she wasn’t.

You might find keeping a chart like Franklin’s too tedious or time-consuming, but even if you opt for a simpler tracking system, it’s important to give yourself a visual representation of your progress as you work to form or break a habit. (If one of your habits is your smartphone, you might want to check out the “Ben’s Virtues” smartphone app.)

Lay a solid foundation for success

You’ll be more likely to succeed with habit formation if you’re well-informed. It’s a good idea to consult an expert — particularly if you’re embarking on a quest that impacts your health. You should definitely talk to a medical professional before you begin a diet or exercise program to ensure that your plans will be safe and effective.

No matter which habit you want to make or break, best wishes to you as you tackle the challenge in 2013!

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Category: New Year's

About the Author ()

Kate Johanns is an Austin, Texas-based writer and editor. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.