Start the New Year Off Right

Many of us make goals for a new year, but abandon them by the time February rolls around. Whether it’s because we bit off more than we could chew or we can’t find the right motivation, it’s a vicious cycle.

Start the New Year Off Right

So what are some ways we can not only choose the right goals but stick to them? 

Make Gradual Changes

Supposedly, it takes anywhere from 21 to 66 days to form a new habit or break an old one. So why do we think that, magically, on January 1 we’re going to be a different person? No one changes overnight, so the goals we set for a new year should include making gradual changes; we need to outline actionable steps we can take to help us get closer to the end goal.

Understand Habits

To help you cultivate new habits, it may be helpful to first understand what a habit is. Good or bad, a habit is our brain’s automatic way of doing something without having to think consciously about it. You probably take the same route to work every day, even if there are alternate ways. You may even find yourself wondering how you wound up in your usual parking space when you don’t remember much of the drive!

If you stop to think and break down your day, you’ll notice other habits- you leave the shower running “to warm up” even if it’s not necessary. When you dress, you always step into your pants or put on your shoes with the same foot first. At night, do you collapse in bed to read or watch a show and tell yourself you’ll get up to wash your face and brush your teeth before falling asleep… and then you inevitably wake up with a book on your chest and Netflix asking “Are You Still Watching?” If there’s a lull in your work or a conversation, you might habitually reach for your phone and scroll through familiar apps without really taking in the content. Maybe it’s your habit to start projects around the house and lose steam halfway through. There are myriad habits that either help or hinder us on a regular basis.

Typically, habits are formed because they increase efficiency. If we do things the same way every day, we know what to expect and can avoid surprises that throw us off guard or disrupt our schedule. Think about how a child behaves when they’re thrown a proverbial curveball; they may have a tantrum because they don’t know how to deal with things being different than they expected. As well-adjusted adults, we may not kick and scream when something goes our way, but our brains are probably having a tantrum-like reaction no one else can see.

Why Habits are Hard to Break

When we’re habitually performing tasks, our brains reward us with dopamine releases. We feel satisfied with a task that went as expected, and we get a hormone reward to justify our actions. Both good and bad habits create neural pathways in our brains, and it can be difficult to rewire our brains. The reason being that we’re not only stopping the current way we do something, but we’re trying to replace it with different behavior.

Knowing this, you may be less critical of yourself when you deviate from your plans to change. Lapses in our efforts to break old habits and form new ones are normal, and part of the process of growth. Shame can be a powerful motivator, whether it’s urging you to do something or to avoid something. It’s why many people put off important healthcare appointments such as routine exams or dental visits- they haven’t been for so long that they’re ashamed to resume regular appointments.

The Six Stages of Change

Known in psychology as the Transtheoretical or Stages of Change Model, the six stages of change are as follows:

  1. Pre-contemplation - unaware of a need for change

  2. Contemplation - realizing a change might be necessary

  3. Preparation - making plans to execute change

  4. Action - following through with implementing change

  5. Maintenance - change becomes habitual

  6. Relapse - we experience a setback to previous behavior

Relapses are such a normal part of the process of change that psychologists have built them into the journey! The trick is to acknowledge a setback without letting it discourage you from continuing to progress. If you make a wrong turn on a car ride, do you immediately park your car on the side of the road and give up? Chances are that you look back on the journey to see where you made the mistake, and then you do your best to steer your car on the right route again. 

Take Baby Steps

Now that you understand a bit about the psychology of habits, what are some action items you can do to stay on course? Let’s revisit the home renovation scenario mentioned earlier.

How often does your to-do list for home projects get written with the best of intentions, and then cast aside? It’s usually because the work starts to feel never-ending, and/or funds run out. A way to avoid DIY burnout is to be realistic about what you can do yourself, and what you need to hire out. 

You might know that you need to update the siding on your home, but do you know the best style for your home’s architecture and the climate in which you live? Instead of putting off researching it, why not consult with an expert? There are businesses, such as Burbach Companies, that specialize in home exteriors so you don't have to. They can help you bring your home renovation vision to life, whether you just pay for a consultation, or you contract with them to perform the work. It may be your habit to do everything yourself, but if you stop to evaluate how that has affected your life over the years, is it really saving you time, money, and hassle?

And what about your habit of crashing without performing an oral or skincare routine at the end of the day? You could take baby steps toward changing that behavior by brushing your teeth right after dinner so no matter when you doze off, you’ve at least freshened your breath. Or, put facial cleansing cloths in your nightstand so you can wipe off the day even after tucking yourself into a pile of pillows and blankets for a Netflix binge. Vowing to take better care of your skin doesn't have to be an overwhelming ordeal; you can gradually make changes to be more mindful of your routine and make improvements.

As for the habit of avoiding the dentist, the first step toward improving your oral is to find the right practitioner. There are not only a variety of practices, but there are some dentists with the right bedside manner to meet your needs. You may have had a bad experience in the past, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a good one in the future. 

Don’t Give in to the Myths

Don’t let the myths about goal setting get you down. As you continue to take baby steps toward changing your behavior, know that it’s normal to relapse.

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