Updated: Dec 20, 2022
It’s that time of the year again. Are you feeling pressured to create your New Year’s resolutions? Are you frustrated that you weren’t able to successfully complete the resolutions you wrote for this year? Likely, you finally want to succeed at changing your behavior in the coming year. If you can relate to any of this, you’re not alone.
Year after year, millions of people list their New Year's resolutions on New Year’s Eve, only to realize on the following New Year's Eve that they failed to achieve the goals they had set for themselves the previous year.
That’s because New Year's resolutions don’t work.
They especially don’t work for people who experience executive function (EF) challenges on a daily basis. Individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) will tell you it’s hard enough to remember to bring their lunch to school, write their assignments in their planner or calendar, know what they need to complete a project, and study for a test.
Setting lofty intentions to be achieved at some point in the next 365 days is a complete waste of time.
So, how can we improve our New Year's resolutions to make them more achievable?
Instead of a New Year's resolution, start a habit
Do you forget to do your homework and study for tests, miss deadlines, end up doing everything at the last possible moment, and then get poor grades? If so, maybe your initial idea for a News Year's resolution was “get my work done on time.”
Really? That’s way too vague. The key question is, what can you do that is going to help you get your work completed on time?
Rather than coming up with a big change you’d like to make, consider starting a new habit.
How about, for example, starting a habit of using a calendar? Maybe you’ve tried using a calendar or planner in the past, but it didn’t stick. My guess is you never thought about what you could do to make using a calendar (or anything else you’d like to do) a habit.
Much of what I share here I learned from BJ Fogg’s book “Tiny Habits” and other articles that provide similar strategies. You’ll notice the examples I provide are directed toward my typical clients who have challenges getting their work completed. But, the advice remains the same, whether you want to finish your homework, reduce your stress, eat healthier, or become more active (or lots of other things people want to do when they create their New Year's resolutions).
The first step to starting a new habit is to understand what forms a habit.
1. Know what forms a habit
According to Britannica Dictionary, a habit is “a usual way of behaving: something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way.”
However, it’s important to know that while people may do the habit (or behavior) repeatedly, repetition does not form a habit. Also contrary to what you may think, willpower and discipline do not form a habit.
So, what forms a habit? Emotion! The stronger the feeling of success you experience after doing something, the faster that behavior becomes a regular part of your life.
2. Choose an effective habit
BJ Fogg says habits need to meet three criteria. The first is that the habit needs to be effective. Meaning, it needs to produce the result you want to achieve.
Recently, I started coaching a high school student. When I asked him how he kept track of his assignments he told me that when his teachers announced homework and upcoming tests during the school day, he sent himself text messages about the work. He didn’t use a calendar, a planner, or even write a to-do list. He was pretty insistent that having the texts in his phone helped him remember what he needed to do.
Guess what? The data proved otherwise: he had a bunch of missing assignments and was failing one of his classes. I asked him if he looked at the texts after school. He admitted he usually forgot to look at them and often they’d be so cryptic that he wouldn’t know what he meant when he wrote a text (“I wrote ‘physics homework,’ but I didn’t know when it was due.”). After analyzing the system he was using, he agreed that texting himself was not an effective habit for keeping up with what he needed to do to succeed in school.
3. Do what you want to do
When choosing a habit, it’s important to land on something you want to do. Otherwise, there’s no chance you’re going to continue doing it.
If you decide you want to make a habit of eating vegetables, choose to eat vegetables you like. Don’t pick Brussels sprouts if you don’t like them! There are plenty of other vegetables out there. Go with one (or two or three) that you like and you’ll be much more likely to start (and continue) your vegetable-eating habit.
Similarly, if you decide you want to use a planner, choose a format you think you’d prefer to use. If you know that you don’t want to carry around a paper planner, don’t invest in a paper planner! Instead, consider using a planner or calendar app on your phone and/or laptop. There are tons of them out there. You may need to try out a few until you land on one you like best and want to use.
Also, sorry, parents, but if your child doesn’t want to use the planner you chose for them, forcing them to use it probably won’t work. That’s where executive function coaches come in. We patiently work with students (using trial and error) to find systems that students want to use. Not to mention, working with an impartial specialist takes away tension between parents (who often want their child to form particular habits) and children (who do not want to do the habits their parents choose).
4. Do what you can do
When it comes to deciding on a new habit, be sure you can actually do it.
If you’re not technologically savvy, it probably doesn’t make sense to try to begin a habit of using an electronic planner. However, people who are better at using devices than writing on paper will probably have a better chance of forming a habit of using a digital planner. Here are some popular options (some of which offer printable versions of planners, which are ideal for people who prefer to write on paper): Article on best planners, Erin Condren, Passion Planner- printable, and Blue Sky.
5. Make it tiny
KISS is a design principle in engineering that stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” If you prefer to avoid using “stupid,” other variations include “keep it small and simple” and “keep it short and simple.” The point is, start tiny. Start simple.
You’re most likely to start a new habit if you set the bar low. Shrink it down. If you want to read, start with a plan to read one paragraph and only aim to read for 5 minutes. Eventually, after you get going, you’ll be likely to read for more than 5 minutes.
However, say you plan to read for 60 minutes right off the bat. Chances are you’ll find that long amount of time too overwhelming and will quit before the behavior becomes a habit. This is why it’s important to set the bar low and raise it over time.
6. Fit it into your routine
If you’d like to begin a habit, you’re more likely to stick with it if you can fit it into your life. The tiny habit should be anchored to something you’re already doing. It should fit naturally into your routine. In other words, what does your tiny habit come after? You may already have some you do naturally, such as buckling your seatbelt after getting into the car.
When I was in high school, I decided to get my math homework out of the way because math was my least favorite subject. After returning home from school, I’d have a snack (always ice cream!) while watching General Hospital. As soon as the show was over, I moved on to complete my math homework. I didn’t realize at the time that I’d created a tiny habit, but it stuck and worked well for me. Plus, I always completed my math homework!
Need some ideas for how you can fit your tiny habits into your routine? Check out Tiny Habits® Recipe Maker. In addition to giving you some options for things you can do at certain times during your day, it offers ideas for “anchor moments,” which are behaviors you already do that your new habits can immediately follow. It even ranks the anchor moments you come up with! Here’s a suggestion… I will open my “to-do” list after I finish my afternoon snack. According to the recipe maker, this is a better “recipe” for creating a habit than opening your to-do list after getting into your pajamas, buckling your seatbelt in the car, or merging onto the highway. No big surprise there!
7. Celebrate immediately after doing the new tiny behavior
If you look back on the first secret, you’ll recall that habits are most likely to be formed when they’re connected with positive emotions. So, celebrate your successes! Yes, even your tiniest successes!
You put your planner in your backpack! You packed your lunch the night before school! You spent 5 minutes looking at your emails! You put an event in your calendar! You cleared your dishes from the table! You put your laundry away! All of these successes deserve celebration. So, as soon as you do a tiny habit, say, “I did a good job!” or do something else that feels like a small celebration.
Time to start your tiny habit
Although you already knew New Year's resolutions aren’t always effective, now you know the 7 secrets to forming habits that have a better chance of success. What tiny habit would you like to start? I’d love to hear your plans. Please share your ideas!
* If you’re having a difficult time thinking of a habit or would like some help coming up with a plan for developing your habit, an executive function coach can provide assistance and accountability. Our coaches at Enhancing Your Strengths can certainly help, so please schedule a complimentary consultation.