New Year, New Habit? Tips for New Year’s Resolutions


Image credit: Corbis

It is that time of year again. The fridge is over-populated with half-eaten turkey and other non-distinct food-stuffs sealed into Tupperware. The sherry seal is broken and the selection boxes have taken a battering. Time for our resolve to come careering into view. A litany of New Year’s resolutions are uttered in readiness for an ascetic January.

Only experience shows each successive resolution inevitably falls away like a quickly crumbling wall of willpower. Few wolves are needed to blow this particular house down. The gym visits are rained off by a mild squall. The diet deteriorates under the weight of work stresses and wet and windy afternoons. The financial belt tightening is loosed by the false promise of the January sales.

Luckily, I’ve been looking into this habit business. Knowledge is power and all that. I have always been a believer in the powers of ‘deliberate practice‘, but, of course, this method of habit building is hard graft and help is required. Reading more and more in this area of self-improvement (verging dangerously near the vapid world of self-help books) has brought me to synthesise a few tips for habit building.

Cue, habit and reward. ‘The Habit Loop’.

Charles Duhigg’s excellent book, ‘The Power of Habit‘, is a powerhouse of habit building goodness. I could explain the whole book in warm, loving tones, but I won’t. This excellent diagram neatly summarises the advice in the book for me. That being said, read the book – come on, commit yourself to habit building.


‘The three unities’: time, place and action.

First stealing from Duhigg, now Aristotle. Rather than the classic formula for a play, I am using the unities as a reminder that sustaining a habit is often tied to the mental cues of physical routines. If you are planning on writing a great novel then having a regular time and space to write can help cue your brain into the creative process of your new habit. Sitting down and facing a blank page is the best way to initiate a habit. Create a regular time to start, perhaps with the habitual reward of a strong coffee (Beethoven drank buckets of the stuff) and you are off. The more disciplined amongst us can take the unity of time even further. The writer, Anthony Trollope, began every writing day at 5:30 A.M., focusing himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Such consistency, commitment and perseverance is the stuff of habit.

Shout about it – or write about it.

Whilst we are on the topic of writing and habits, actually committing your new resolution or habit to the page makes you more likely to sustain your efforts. Telling people you are on a diet won’t necessarily guarantee you stick to it – in the dark hours in front of the fridge, when no-one is looking, your honourable oath can prove hollow – but talking through your plans and your new habit can give you that extra mental impetus to stick to your promises. Taking the time to write about your new habit, planning with some care your ‘unities‘ can give that calm, collected reminder why your new habit is important, useful and necessary. Benjamin Franklin, famous Yankee Founding Father, created rigorous plans that helped him be habitually brilliantly industrious. His plans are testament to his commitment to habits – take a look.


Image via (c) Nick Bilton

One habit to rule them all.

The problem with changing our habits is that we have too many bad habits. Often, bad habits that are deliciously good fun. To deny ourselves with the will of some ancient hermit is too often unrealistic. We should therefore be pragmatic and start with a reasonably manageable habit first. Crucially, a singular, focused habit. If I need to reduce my sugar intake, I may start with the new habit of eliminating sugar from my coffee (that is a recent and bitter habit borne of dentistry bills!). If I want to improve my marking of the essays of my students then I need to start a workable habit of doing five essays a night. An hour of regular marking isn’t going to sap all my energy. It is timely and manageable. I can do it. I can do it! Select one new habit and master it.

Surround yourself with the righteous. ‘Mirroring’ and social behaviour.

Of course, we are all social beasts. We are grooming, preening, self-conscious social butterflies. If we are out with a group of our friends our speech naturally converges with theirs, our behaviour mirrors theirs. If your friends love a riotous evening of excessive drinking then attempting to go teetotal in their company isn’t likely to provide you with the fertile conditions to grow your new habit. Instead, we need to surround ourselves with the righteous. If we are going to the gym we need to connect with our gym-monkey friends (luckily I don’t have any…gym-monkey friends that is). If we are attempting to begin writing a blog, or attending a new class or pursuit, we need to find friends we can ‘mirror‘. It just makes stuff easier. Finding a friend or two usually makes most things easier.

Double up.

Illness strikes your house like a biblical plague. You miss work. Gym goes out the window. Your new habit grinds to a halt. Sometimes we are simply unable to fight the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. Our stresses, our physical and mental weaknesses, make breaking a new habit easier sustaining one. We therefore need a simple rule. We double up. If you miss one session of your new habit – perhaps it is an hour of reading – then we need to double up. The next days we need to find two hours of the stuff. We need to keep ourselves honest. Don’t beat yourself up about a setback – discipline yourself to getting right back into the habit after the setback.

Reward yourself: short and long term goals.

Success breeds confidence, which breeds more success and so on. Rewards, of course, are essential to sustaining our habits. We all need that replenishing shot of dopamine pleasure mainlined to our brains to keep us positive and driven; yet, we don’t get the perfect body overnight, we don’t ever become perfect at our job within the week. We need shorter term, realistic rewards to aim for. It could be as small as a chocolate bar, a spell on the internet, or a secret tryst in a foreign climb (alas, that last reward is all in my mind and strictly hypothetical!). We need short and long term rewards to really complete the job. Perhaps our new habit of short-term extra work could lead to a prospective long-term promotion. Perhaps a house move, or a significant life change can be our ultimate long-term goal and reward. It is proven that perseverance is linked inextricably to strong long-term goal setting. Get writing that habit plan – set your short and long-term goals.

Get competitive then get some sleep.

Collaboration can help: surrounding ourselves with the righteous. Of course, it is only human to also have a competitive streak. Secretly, I like a good competition. I like to blog a lot. Seeing my blog statistics escalate gives me that competitive drive to do better next time. To write more, to write better (mainly just writing more). Even though I am only in competition with myself in reality – I can convince myself that this driven state of mind is entirely healthy. It can sustain the habit through spells of withering will. After all that competitive struggle, a well earned rest is at hand. Again, the brain is a wonderfully plastic, malleable piece of kit. If we get a good sleep we are much more able to sustain our concentration, fend off the psychological weaknesses that attend states of stress. So get some sleep and begin building your habits with refreshed vim and vigour.

Finally, make a beautiful plan. Enough of the tips – it is time to put a plan into action.

Stop procrastinating!

Now, start now.

So, what is your habit change – your New Year’s resolution? Plan for your ‘unities‘, write it down, find a righteous friend, get competitive, reward yourself…and sleep….and repeat.

If you have read to the end of this post you clearly have the capacity for perseverance required to master a new habit or resolution or two! Go well.

Related reading:

Oliver Burkeman shows a better way to New Year resolve: see here.

Alain de Botton on why we should have New Year’s resolutions: see here.

Here is my post on teachers undertaking ‘deliberate practice’ to improve their habits- see here.

Here is my post on how students can master their habits – see here.

My blog post on sustaining the habit of blogging is here.

Finally, this is my post on that inimitable quality of GRIT and perseverance – see here.

8 thoughts on “New Year, New Habit? Tips for New Year’s Resolutions”

  1. Great post Alex! Some interesting ideas and reflection points for us all!

    Have you read ‘The Icarus Deception’ by Seth Godin? There are some really useful insights into goal setting in the book. He uses the myth of Icarus to explain his point. We know that Icarus was told not to fly to high as the sun would melt the way and his wings would fall off. He was also told not to fly to low as the mist and moisture would weigh down his wings and he would fall into the sea. A useful analogy to consider when setting goals.

    Seth explains it better than me –


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  5. I enjoyed this, Alex, and found it interesting in the light of all the #nurture1314 posts I’ve been reading over the past few days. I think the #nurture1314 is an excellent idea (thanks @ChocoTzar) which encourages us to reflect on the year and give ourselves credit for what we’ve achieved (which I don’t think we do nearly enough) before focussing on what we would like to achieve in the year to come – a good way of motivating us to believe we CAN do better. The problem with it is that if you come up with 14 things you hope to do, there’s a tendency to be a bit too ambitious and inevitably unspecific about how you might do them.

    I’m an eternal optimist and every new year (both calendar and academic!) I’ve always thought of things I would like to do differently/better in the next stretch. I’ve kept a diary for a long time, and at some point in the 70s, when I was still at school, I wrote my resolutions in the back, and there were 75 of them….Perhaps it was 1975. I’ve learnt since then to focus on two or three things, to break it down into manageable steps, reward and incentivize along the way, as you suggest here.

    Sometimes I think it’s our bad habits that make us interesting and I hope I always have a few, but I do want to be healthy, balanced and happy, and there are things I can do to help with that. Your post has definitely helped. Thank you…

    Enjoy the rest of the Christmas break, and I hope 2014 is a very good year for you, and that you accomplish at least SOME of the things you hope/plan/wish to do! Hope perhaps to meet you at some stage, too.

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