New Year’s Resolutions: How to Make Successful Habit Changes

As I’m writing this, we are almost half way through December. This time of year is about getting ready for the holidays AND the new year.   As we are looking forward to the new year, most of us are thinking about new habits we want to start (or renew). But this can be tricky. You only have so much time and energy to spend on habit change, and some health trends are not actually helpful to you. I want to help you plan for this upcoming year. Let’s talk about how decide what habits are right for you!

#1 Make changes that make sense

Starting habits you can’t keep doing is so common we write comic strips about it! This can happen for several reasons: we try to change too much at once, we don’t put forth enough effort, or we are trying to make a change we are not ready for.   No matter what you decide to change, all change requires energy and effort. And sometimes we fail to make a change because we take on too much or are lazy. But most of us do want to change. We have every intention of making changes and sticking with them.

So what’s the problem?

Often, we try to make changes based on what we think we should change, instead of what makes sense, in our life, to change.

For example: You read a health trend article on social media about doing interval training five days a week. There are so many benefits! So you decide to start doing thirty minutes a day. But you had an old knee injury that is easily aggravated, and by the third day you are in so much pain you have to take medication. You make it to the fifth day, glad for the break. After two rest days you are still walking with a limp, and decide not to continue the interval training until you can walk without pain again. It takes three weeks to feel fully recovered, but you never start up your interval training again.

What do you think this shows? Too many changes? No, let say that this was the only thing you decided to change at this time. Laziness? Many people (my old self included) would say that this you were lazy, or a wimp. But you did show dedication. You pushed through the pain to see if it would get better. But it didn’t. In fact, it took your body almost a month to recover. You body let you know that you weren’t ready for that change in that way.  

There was a time that if I had been living the above scenario, I would have felt like a failure, and called myself all kinds of names.

But now I look at that scenario and see it as a victory. You stopped because you were listening to your body! It told you this was too much for it right now, and you listened. That’s not a failure, that’s a win! To seal the victory, you need to try something else. Exercise can be challenging. Just because it is doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Find something that is a slight challenge for you… maybe it’s a five or ten minute walk. Maybe it’s a bike ride, or yoga. Maybe it’s a martial arts class. Find something, listen to your body, and don’t give up without a reason (“it’s too hard” is not a reason, although “it hurts too much” is a clue to try something else).   When we make changes that make sense, we are working with our body instead of fighting against it. This creates a two-against-one scenario, and you are more likely to succeed!

#2 Don’t make too many changes at once

The beginning of the new year is a great time to make changes. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t take advantage of the timing, the motivation, and even the cultural shift to choose healthy over unhealthy. But making too many changes at one time doesn’t set you up for success.

Most experts agree that we can only successfully make 1-3 changes at a time. Maybe with the new year energy you can make three. (Especially if they are opposites, like cut out soda and drink more water.)   There are very few people that can successfully create many new habits at one time. Let’s assume you are not one of these people!   Did I just cut your resolutions list in half? Or more? You probably have some great habit changes on that list. How can you eliminate some?

First, cross off any habit changes that you only put on there because you saw it on social media and feel guilty for not doing it. Maybe that habit change is a good idea, but making a change solely because of guilt is not likely to end well. Second, out of the remaining habits, circle the ones that seem simpler to complete and the ones that make the most sense related to what is going on in your life right now (physically and circumstantially). Third, pick (at most) three habits to begin with. These may be the simplest (avoid chlorinated water: buy a shower and sink filter), or the most pressing (make meat stock every day to calm constant joint pain).

When you pick the habits that are most important or simple for you to change right now, you are more likely to succeed in those habits. This will create momentum (not to mention make you feel better, which leads to increased energy), which you can use to make the next set of important habit changes. (Which you can start making when the first set are well established, or about three weeks.)

#3 It’s a marathon!

Habit change is not a sprint—it’s a marathon. When you are training for a marathon, you don’t run 26.2 miles every day. You run more some days, and less on others. Some days you don’t run at all! Don’t think of your habit change as a sprint… all or nothing and if you have one little mess up, you are out of the race. Our lives are not like that. We have built-in room for error (our race is approximately 80-90 years long). Everything we do either builds our body up (anabolic) or tears and wears it down (catabolic). We are never stable, we are always moving and changing. Being perfect is not the goal—making forward progress and positive change is.

As I wrote last week, get off the bandwagon bandwagon! There is no bandwagon to fall off of! The bandwagon is a myth! If you don’t do a habit one day or another, you haven’t lost your chances of success. Each choice that you make simply adds to the anabolic or catabolic side of the scale. But one (or even several) negative choices don’t have to cause a downward spiral. They don’t have that kind of power unless you give it to them.   There you go. Three ways to choose the habits that are best for you right now (which are also the ones in which you are most likely to succeed)! Now you know how to choose habits. Next time I will give you a list of some of my top habit suggestions for you to consider… one’s that give you a lot of bang for you buck (or should I say results for you time)!   Until next time,


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