It’s the end of the year again, when last year's resolutions have long been forgotten and we're preparing to get back on the bandwagon come Jan. 1. But you don’t have to wait for a special time of year to get into a new routine — it matters more that you're in the right frame of mind.
Turns out if you’re trying to start a new habit, the best time to do so may be in the morning. A study published in Health Psychology found that when people adopted a single, simple new habit in the morning, like stretching for 15 seconds (which is supposed to help reduce stress levels), they were more likely to stick to it than if they started at night. It’s most likely linked to cortisol levels, which are higher in the morning. Cortisol has been shown to have a positive role in habit formation.
The power of stubbornness
Another suggestion? Stick with it, especially at the beginning, because consistency is key. "When we practice something a number of times in a row, then it becomes a habit," explains Dr. Amy Hakim, industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and founder of The Cooper Strategic Group in Boca Raton, Florida. "If your New Year's resolution is to exercise daily, then commit to doing so for three weeks straight. Set a specific time that you will exercise each day, and put it in your calendar. Treat that 'appointment' as you might any other commitment. Keep track of your progress and reward yourself with a small 'prize' or token once you meet your goal."
One way to make sure you're staying on top of your resolutions and staying on course is to use a tracking application. The Omni Calculator's New Year's Resolutions Calendar lets you enter in your resolutions and your end goal (i.e. lose 20 pounds) and tells you what you need to do a weekly basis in order to achieve your goal.
Also, it’s important to be patient with yourself. Slip-ups are part of life. If you use those slip-ups as an excuse to ditch the new habit and pick back up right where you left off (say, going back to your usual muffin for breakfast instead of fixing yourself an omelet), then you’ll be less likely to stick with your new habit. If you fall off the bandwagon once or twice, forgive yourself, move on and recommit to your goal.
Why so many resolutions fail
For all those people you know who make New Year's resolutions, here's this fact to ponder: It’s estimated that only 8% of us follow through with them. Why is it so hard?
1. Our goals are too extreme. A study by University of Chicago researchers found that more than half of resolutions are health-related, like eating healthier or exercising more. It's hard to change your entire diet or lose 20 pounds, so when things don't change immediately, people tend to throw in the towel. The researchers also found, no surprise, that it's easier to stick to resolutions if you enjoy doing them. So try setting smaller and more manageable goals that you actually enjoy, like taking a walk every day at lunch or adding favorite fruits and vegetables to your diet.
2. Our goals are too vague. Similarly, it doesn't do much good if your goals aren't easy to follow. Instead of "lose some weight," plan on losing five pounds. Instead of "volunteering more," pick a day, a time and a program.
3. We make too many resolutions. Don't try to do everything at once. Nearly 40% of people blame broken resolutions on being too busy and having too many other things to do.
4. We're not accountable. If you only have this "I should do this" mention to yourself, that's hardly a promise and you're not really reminded of it. Tell your family or friends that you have a goal. Make a chart, to-do list or diary where you can't miss it. Having a regular reminder that you've set a goal may inspire you to actually work to achieve it.
The magic formula
"Consider setting a SMART goal (something that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely)," Hakim says. "Set specific milestones that you will hit and specific rewards you will win. (Think of that star chart from when you were a kid.) Remember that it's much more attainable — and comfortable — to focus on achieving numerous smaller goals that will ultimately lead you to a larger goal."
One way of accomplishing several, smaller goals is to set up "micro-resolutions" — one resolution for every month of the year. "Dry January" is a popular micro-resolution when people commit to not drinking alcohol for the entire month especially as a reprieve after the holidays. Another idea is to exercise at least three times a week during May before summer hits. Some goals can focus on mental health too like clearing your head while walking in the woods. By committing to one resolution for four weeks, you're more likely to accomplish that goal. If you stick with it by the end of the year, you will have accomplished 12 resolutions!
So go ahead. Set that New Year’s resolution. And make that healthy habit stick this time around.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in December 2017 and has been updated with new information.