Female cleaning desk

Stop setting goals – build habits instead

A smarter way to achieve those New Year’s resolutions

4 minute read
Female cleaning desk

For many of us, the tempting urge to set yet another New Year’s resolution despite all evidence pointing to their ineffectiveness remerges at the pointy end of each year.

As January approaches, we often make ourselves grand promises of running marathons, becoming kinder, securing a promotion, saving large sums of money, and even – among our vaguest pursuits – living life to the fullest.

However, these mammoth goals can devour us with overwhelming feelings before we even begin them – the finish line is so obscured we cannot pick a starting point.

Luckily there is a different, smarter way forward, where you can not only master a one-off resolution but also implement positive behavioural change with long-term returns.

By building better habits, achieving a goal won’t be a battle against your natural instincts – rather, you will naturally find yourself breezing past goalposts as your behaviours change for the better.

What is a habit and why do they form?

According to The University of Western Australia Social Psychology Senior Lecturer Tim Kurz, there are three key markers, which distinguish a habit from other types of behaviour.

“First of all, the formation of habits requires that the behaviour in question is repeated over and over again – habits are formed via repetition, and there is no such thing as an instant habit,” Dr Kurz said.

“A second key psychology property of habits is – once they have formed – they automatically affect our behaviour.

“They become something we just do without even consciously thinking about it.”

Dr Kurz said the third lesser-known feature of habitual behaviour was that habits were specific to a particular context.

“We form habits in particular situations or places, which then become cues activating the impulses associated with the habit,” he said.

“This is why habits can be so hard to break once they are formed – they have become automatic behavioural responses to particular contexts we generally encounter on a regular basis.”

Making the psychology of habits work for us

The psychological mechanism of habits, which can so often be our downfall as we thoughtlessly throw clothes on the floor or bite our nails, can be utilised to our advantage by intentionally building habits that function to serve a larger goal.

“Habitual behaviour may be largely unconscious but this does not mean you can’t consciously try to turn something into a habit by doing a behaviour repeatedly, at the same time and in the same place until the performance of the behaviour becomes automatic,” Dr Kurz said.

“To harness the power of habits to achieve big goals, you need to think about the end state you want to get to in the long term, and then think about the regular, repeated behaviours that would help you get there.”

Taking the ever-popular long-distance running New Year’s resolution as an example, Dr Kurz highlights how the process of building achievable habits can make your implausible goals become an inevitable reality, one day at a time.

“For example, rather than deciding in January that you want to be able to complete a 10km fun run by August, you would be better off working out the consistent, shorter-term steps that might get you there,” he said.

“You might say, ‘I’m going to go running every Monday’ – if you manage to stick with this for a few months by sheer will, then chances are this will become a habit without even consciously deliberating about it every week.”

“When packing your work bag on Sunday night, you automatically throw in your running gear, and clocking off on Monday evening automatically cues you to get changed and start pounding the pavement.”

Once your motivation potentially starts to wane, your habit will remain, and the capacity to complete a 10km run in August will be the natural next step of your regular routine.

Success, resilience and accepting slip-ups

Focusing on small manageable goals might be a more meaningful method for success but understanding that progress is still a meandering journey and never a straight line is paramount.

If you accept that so-called mistakes are part of the process, you will be less likely to give up on a resolution when the going gets tough.

“When it comes to trying to break habits, it is important not to be too hard on ourselves,” Dr Kurz said.

“Often people will beat themselves up over one slip up and then ‘throw in the towel’ completely.

“Recognising that breaking habits and forming new ones takes time and great effort, and responding to slip-ups by just getting back in the saddle and trying again, is very important.”

With psychological insight and a sense of self-understanding at the helm, your 2024 resolutions will be more achievable than any that came before.