Experts reveal ‘proven formula’ habit stacking for sticking to New Year’s resolutions

Starting the new year with good intentions is one thing, but most of us know that sticking to those resolutions is another story.

Can productivity hacks help us stick to our goals? You may have heard of habit stacking, for example – but what does it really mean?

“We know that the ‘new year, new me’ energy is about to start, and often we look to start things at this time of year. If you want to build your habits, then habit stacking is a great methodology, says Ruth Kudzi, founder of Optimus Coach Academy (optimuscoachacademy.com).

“Habit stacking is a proven formula, which means you attach a new habit to a well-established habit that you already have,” she adds. “When you stack your habit, you link your new habit to one that already exists, which makes it cognitively easier for you to do as you are able to make the link between the two behaviors, effectively wiring your brain to make the connection.”

For example, imagine that an existing habit is brushing your teeth, and you want to introduce a new habit of standing on one leg. If you stack them, your brain will learn to associate brushing your teeth with standing on one leg. “Brushing your teeth is the ‘anchor’ of the new habit,” adds Kudzi.

Want to try it? Here’s how habit stacking can help make your New Year’s resolutions stick…

1. Break down your resolutions into something that can be achieved through small everyday actions

“Most resolutions are too daunting and people struggle to get started. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, break it down to what you would do differently each day – just buy healthy food, no chocolate; eat a full breakfast; replace crackers with fruit at 4 p.m. Small achievable steps are key, says Jeremy Campbell, managing director of performance improvement and technology business, Black Isle Group (blackislegroup.com).

These may seem like very small, simple actions – but they will help. In fact, this approach can increase your chances.

“Keep it simple and small, and use the compound effect. For example, every time I make a cup of tea or coffee, I’ll have a glass of water. You’ll find yourself reducing your caffeine intake and increasing your water intake,” says Kudzi.

2. Adjust existing routines

Using this approach can make it easier to implement changes. “For example, if you want to exercise more when you get home from work – if the first thing you usually do is change into your work clothes, change your routine so that you put on your workout clothes at the same time. The old habit must be a pointer for the new one, says Campbell.

3. But look at your current habits first

It’s worth looking at what you already do in your everyday life, because that’s how you find a solid habit to anchor from.

“What do you do every day – brush your teeth, walk the dog, make a cup of tea when you wake up? Once you’re very clear on these, add a new habit on the back of these daily routines, says Campbell.

“For example, if you want to read more when you wake up, put a book on your pillow so it’s there when you go back to bed at night. Place your runner next to the bed so you trip over it the moment you get up to make that cup of tea!”

4. Make really specific goals

If your new habit is too vague, it’s easy to avoid. “Make it obvious and very clear,” says Campbell. “So deciding to read 10 pages every night before bed is a much better habit than just reading more.”

Setting numbered goals can really help, says Kudzi. “For example, I say that as soon as I drop my kids off at school, I go for a walk in the woods for at least 10 minutes: I often do more, but it’s a very clear instruction to my brain,” she says. “Giving something a number helps your brain, so maybe it’s reading five pages of your book, journaling for five minutes, or doing five push-ups.”

5. Motivate success

“When you reward the new habit with something positive and pleasant, you strengthen neural pathways with dopamine. If you expect a reward, your brain releases dopamine, indicating that this is a behavior you want to repeat,” explains Kudzi.

“Consider that the reward is tied to the habit. For example, if you journal, get a lovely pen or book a writing class. If you exercise more, you can book a massage.” Celebrating when habits start to stick will also help. “When we celebrate, we release powerful emotional chemicals in our brains that make us feel happy. Feeling good about achieving something is the biggest incentive we need to keep going and achieve more, says Campbell. “So, celebrate all your small successes and you’ll be much more likely to change your life in 2023.”

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