Forget Resolutions: Try Forming New Habits. Here's How I Did It.
Years ago (in the early 90s, to be exact) I made a New Year’s resolution to go vegan. Having gone vegetarian in 1989, I knew I wanted to go further.
Trouble is, I ended up having to make that same resolution each year, because each year, some number of days or weeks in, I would inevitably fail at my veganism goal, thereby ruining my resolution. Making a standalone, all-or-nothing resolution didn’t work for me, encouraging a kind of perfectionist thinking that often gets in my way. This strategy was so ineffectual that I stopped making any resolutions at all.
It took 17 years for me to finally go vegan, in 2006. So, what changed, besides the growing awareness and availability of vegan options in stores and restaurants?
I began looking at veganism as a new habit that I wanted to adopt. Suddenly, it wasn't just about not doing something, but doing new things that felt good too.
I started a blog on a brand new platform as a sort of semi-public accountability food journal, using it to keep track of what I ate, when I was challenged to stay vegan, and even times when I “failed.”
Only I didn’t call it failure this time around.
I decided to analyze each incident and see what habits I could change (or start) to prevent such an incident again. That’s why I keep a bag of almonds in my glove compartment, and why, even in countries thousands of miles from my home, I’ve scoped out the nearest Starbucks where I can get a reliable soy latte and blueberry oatmeal breakfast.
Then I read a book that forever changed my perspective and put a name and theory to what I had been living in practice. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, explains how habit and routine are at the root of all behaviors—not just bad habits we may be seeking to change, but good habits we wish we could instill. Duhigg breaks habits down into a three-step process:
- The cue: a trigger that compels you to take action.
- There’s the action itself.
- And there’s the reward: the motivator that makes sure you keep doing that action.
If these three steps happen often enough, you’ve got yourself going on a routine. A habit. And that cue and reward become neurologically intertwined, which results in a craving.
Your brain, and its many cravings, are powerful forces to be reckoned with; you can’t merely state an intention or make a resolution and expect to change your behavior by sheer force of conscious will alone.
What I had done back in 2006, by recording my experiences and analyzing them for points of success and failure, was far better than resolving to rely on willpower. Instead, I was recognizing what my cues were and trying to come up with new routines that would be equally rewarding.
All those years ago, I'd started a habit practice that I continue to track daily via my Twitter account using the hashtag #notresolutionsjusthabits. Every year, I analyze my routines and how they ladder up to supporting or not supporting larger goals and try to add just one new good habit to my weekly routine. Some habits are daily, some are weekly.
Here are three habits I’ve introduced over the last few years:
1. Cooking or baking at least three times a week.
Not only does this mean I get to make use of the many beautiful vegan cookbooks I own, it means I’m controlling the quality and quantity of food I eat more than when I was ordering in all the time.
Yes, I count making a Green Chef meal kit. Yes, I count baking my #pandemicsourdough. The habit is about putting the effort in.
2. I have weekly goals for movement, which can include walking, weights, yoga, dancing, even gardening.
I count increments as small as 15 minutes. I want to make sure I move every single day, which is probably the healthiest habit I could ever develop.
Walking every day is the habit I’m the most successful at doing without fail. Why? Because at the end of my walk, I stop and pick up my daily almond latte. The reward is so good!
3. In 2021, I added daily reading, even if only 20 minutes, to my habits.
It seemed like COVID lockdown had maybe broken my brain. I couldn’t seem to focus enough to read a single magazine article. Even my television viewing choices were affected, with 2-hour movies feeling like they were too long to focus on in one sitting.
By deciding that I would read just 20 minutes before going to bed each night (and setting that time in my reading app, so I got a little notification when I hit my goal), I slowly started getting my brain back in the habit of focusing.
In 2020, I don’t think I even finished four books. So far in 2021 (as of November) I’ve finished 73!!
I know I sound amazingly motivated and accomplished when I share those routines, but my challenge for 2022 is to figure out what went wrong with the one habit I did not successfully acquire: to practice the piano at least three times a week.
My goal is to get to a level where I don't frustrate myself when I sit down to play. I don’t think I adequately defined what my cue will be to sit down and do it, and I think my reward is more of a hope to avoid a bad feeling, instead of getting a good feeling.
Finally, I didn’t expect to be housebound with my S.O. when I added this habit to my list, and I tend to want to practice when I’m alone so that no one else hears how far my skills have fallen. And for the last 20 months, I have never been alone in my house! So I’ve let myself fixate on that vision of what my habit would look like and not adapted to the reality I’m living in.
That’s my habit problem to solve, and I am going to figure it out for 2022. (Maybe I’ll convince the S.O. to start a good habit of walking around the neighborhood every day for 30 minutes without me, so I can practice then. Hmmm.)
Hope this gives you some ideas for new habits you want to add to your life, and how to set yourself up for successfully routinizing them. Follow along at #notresolutionsjusthabits!
Elisa Camahort Page is a speaker, consultant, and entrepreneur, best-known for co-founding BlogHer. She’s the host of The Op-Ed Page podcast and This Week-ish newsletter, and co-author of Road Map for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Activism, and Advocacy for All. Learn more at elisacp.com.
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