We are careening toward another new year, replete with not only promise, but promises we will make to ourselves. This will be, without question, the year we will (fill in the blank) lose weight … or stop smoking … or give up drinking … or eat healthier.
Our New Year’s Resolutions all sound so good on the surface, and our intentions are always the best. But let’s face it – precious few of us will see our resolutions become habits.
Experts, however, believe there are steps that can be followed to create good habits. How long it will take is open to conjecture. Some say three weeks. Some say 66 days. One even said the range is between 18 and 254 days, which is a very wide variance indeed.
Through the years there has, however, been agreement about the value of good habits. American author/historian Will Durant (1885-1981) wrote the following in the 1926 book The Story of Philosophy: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (This quote is often misattributed to Aristotle.)
The late Vince Lombardi (1913-70), a revered coach of American football, had not one but two famous quotes about this topic:
- “Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.”
- “You don’t do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing.”
There is a great deal of truth in all of that. Our habits do become the very foundation of our lives, the underpinnings of our being. The American Journal of Psychology defined habits in 1903 as “a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.”
A January 2022 piece in Discover Magazine cited research by UCLA professor Vickie Mays showing that 43 percent of daily activities are the product of habit, and offered as an example a woman who in her first year of college began putting in 10,000 steps a day, as has become commonplace in the age of fitness trackers. While that routine was interrupted during graduate school because her mother fell ill, she later resumed it.
Such is the power of habit. A big one of mine is adhering to a workout routine featuring boxing, CrossFit or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Those activities, besides being a great way to stay in shape, appeal to my competitive instincts. There’s no hiding, no cutting corners. These things are very direct. It’s very clear who succeeded, and who fell short. There is also a very obvious carryover to my business dealings.
The Discover Magazine piece cites the two pillars of successful habit-forming as being ease and reward. You have to make it easy to follow a new routine, as exhibited in the piece by the example of Stanford researcher/author BJ Fogg. In the interests of fitness he began doing two pushups each time he visited the bathroom. That led to other changes in his health routine, and over six months he dropped 20 pounds. This practice is known as stacking, where a new behavior is paired with an old one.
Rewards, Discover noted, include things like watching a favorite TV show while on a treadmill or elliptical, or taking the money that might have been spent on cigarettes and putting it toward a nice dinner or concert.
Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, also mentioned enjoyment as a key factor in forming positive habits, in a list she compiled for CNN. Additionally, she believes it is important to set specific goals (i.e., to say you will meditate 15 minutes a day, as opposed to saying you want to start meditating), to allow yourself some flexibility if you falter in your routine and to seek the support of friends and family members.
The point that should be drawn is that it is possible to form good habits – that you can do more than give lip service to changing things up every January. There is a methodology to this. There are proven steps that can be taken. It’s just a matter of taking the first one.