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The Science Behind Habits and New Year’s Resolutions

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credit: Stuart Anthony

Why Keeping Resolutions Is So Difficult

The start of a new year is all about new beginnings, fresh starts and new year’s resolutions!

And it’s not surprising that the most common resolutions are focused on getting healthy or doing something to live life to its fullest.

Sadly, it’s also not surprising that despite the best of intentions to usher in a year of health, fitness, and overall well-being, research shows that even the most resolute of us aren’t very successful in keeping those resolutions.

A landmark 1988 study out of the University of Scranton found that while 77 percent of people who committed to a New Year's resolution stuck to it for a week, only 19 percent of those who made resolutions kept them two years later.

And as you can imagine, as more distractions enter our lives (social media, technology) keeping New Year’s resolutions is more difficult. According to a survey by Statista, only four percent of people who made New Year's resolutions in 2018 said they kept them

Here’s the problem: New Year’s resolutions involve habits, either forming new beneficial habits or quitting bad habits, and habits are complicated.

“Habits aren’t just there, but you get them by repetition and reinforcement,” explains Dr. Nicole Calakos, M.D., Ph.D. and Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center. "The repetition part is obvious, because a habit means regularly doing something, and the more you do it, the conditions are ripe that will make you prone to have a habit. The second is reinforcement. In other words, is the outcome good? Does it help you get about your business? Is it rewarding?”

Studies show it takes from 18-25 days to start a new habit. With that in mind, here are some tips to improve your chances of making/changing a habit and keeping that New Year’s Resolution

1. Know the why

Understand why you are making the resolution. For example, if it’s losing weight, why is that important? Will those fewer pounds make you look better, feel better, reduce medical bills. Buying into the resolution makes it easier to keep going.

2. Keep it simple and be specific

Don’t try to overhaul your entire life, focus on one or two goals.

3. Make the resolution realistic

Don’t aim to high. Look at your track record on resolutions and pick something achievable.

4. Create bite-sized portions

Break the resolution down into achievable and manageable chucks. The more planning now, the more likely you will reach the goal.

5. When you slip, get back into it quickly

It’s ok if you didn’t keep the resolution for a day, do it the next day, but keep it going.

6. Be patient.

For a little more insight on habits, take a look at a story we did with Dr. Calakos and her team at Duke. Their work provides new insights on habits, and how habits—good or bad—leave a lasting mark on specific circuits in the brain. That’s right, habits actually change the wiring in your brain.

You can watch the story here:

Sci NCWhy brain wiring makes Habits Hard to Break/UNC-TV Science