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What makes a New Year’s resolution sustainable

Lose weight. Save money. Go to bed earlier. All these yearly New Year’s resolutions are most often short-lived and seemingly impossible to adapt to.

New Year’s resolutions are goals a person sets in an attempt to better themselves and have prolonged to change in their lives. 

But in the long run, many people find themselves making the same resolutions year after year.

We spend so much time idealizing and curating this version of ourselves who we so desperately want to become and yet always fail to bring that vision to fruition. So why do we expect to suddenly wake up into this entirely new and incredible person on January 1st?

What must be kept in mind is the very nature of habit-building itself. New Year’s resolutions are full of profound positivity with affirmations that this year is “your year” to become the best version of yourself. But often, there is no clear, practical outline of what this imagined self-improvement will look like throughout the rest of the year. Without discipline, commitment and organization, many are left unequipped and unable to actually follow through with their goals long term.

According to Psychology Today, habits form when “new behaviors become automatic and are enacted with minimum conscious awareness.” For instance, a sugar addiction so severe that it is the first thing you reach for in the morning or a social media addiction when clicking on Instagram does not even feel like a decision but rather a mindless impulse. 

So in order for a New Year’s resolution to be sustainable, one must understand how a habit is formed. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered a three-step neurological pattern that forms the core of every habit. The first step is cue, a trigger that tells your brain “to go into automatic mode and prompts the behavior to unfold.” The second step is routine, which is the action itself. The last step is the reward, helping your brain decide if that particular habit loop is worth remembering and repeating or not. MIT’s research states that “habits with immediate rewards are easier to pick up and condition, whereas those with delayed rewards are more difficult to commit to and maintain.”

It is important to realize that the brain is fighting against every single New Year’s resolution until, with time and repetition, those new habits stick. Leaving current habits will, at the start, feel like a deprivation of your security and comfort but do not forget that trying something different can be a more fulfilling reward in the long run. 

Many of the resolutions we dream of are long-term and will improve quality of life, –but changing your lifestyle will not happen in one step. Goal setting needs to be accompanied by reflection and patience. The release of endorphins from exercise, for example, will not come as instantaneously as a sugar high from sweet foods. 

Continued practice of a New Year’s resolution will only happen if a person makes conscious and goal-directed decisions that expand the baseline level of their comfort zones and move them toward the person they want to become.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, a self-help book on the science of habit building, says in his book, “Too often we convince ourselves that massive results require massive action.” This is true for New Year’s resolutions. Instead of burning out too quickly with a singularly driven and purposeful mindset every New Year’s Eve, we must couple our methods with patience and self-awareness so that there is enough time to build a habit physically in our brains while still being able to enjoy the positive lifestyle benefits of adapting to our resolutions.

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