Why We Struggle to Keep Our New Year Resolutions:
The Psychology of Habitude

Oftentimes – our goals are not achieved through ‘transformative’ decisions that we impose on ourselves, but through small, daily habits that we cultivate.

Photo: Isaac Smith

Jan. 23, 2022

For as long as we can remember, as soon as we enter the last week of December, something in us begins to see light at the end of the calendar (tunnel) and drives us to commit to some life-altering plan.

Of course, the range of our resolutions has undergone a slow metamorphosis over the years (and so have we), but the underlying emotion has remained nearly the same: we beckon to make our life better.

Whether our resolution is to, “Drink more water,” “Eat healthy,” or “Read more,” it all aims to lead us in the direction of improvement.

So if our resolutions are designed by us, out of free will, and additionally, are great for our lifestyle, what is it about them that keeps us from sticking to them?

“The brain’s comfort zone is familiarity.”

Since we’re writing from a psychological perspective, you know we’re going to point inward. Maybe it isn’t the resolutions at all, maybe it’s us.

After all, we’re all for advocating introspection, and psychoeducation (that’s our resolution, in case you were curious).

According to Dr. Nicole LePera in her book ‘How to Do the Work,’ big decisions such as resolutions that are far from the reality of our present habits can make our brains feel like they’re in danger. The brain’s comfort zone is familiarity. Anything unfamiliar (such as a drastically new habit that demands several physical and mental changes), can act as a trigger for fear.

Our ultimate aim, that is, a better lifestyle, is an example of true transformation. Such a thing is achieved not through ‘transformative’ decisions that we impose on ourselves, but through small, daily habits that we cultivate.

You might have heard that it takes about twenty-one days to form a habit. Well, research has proven that ‘21’ is really just the lower end of the spectrum. Depending on the difficulty level of the habit and its distance from your current reality, it can take up to two months (66 days to be precise) for a behaviour to feel automatic.

Studies also find that a few misses don’t send the whole habit for a toss. That means you can afford to make mistakes!

Taking a cue from Dr. LePera, it is the baby steps that really take us there. So instead of saying, “This year I will drink 4 liters of water every day,” when currently you’re at a quarter of your target, it might be better to promise yourself an additional glass of water every morning. Small. Realistic. Achievable.

Once you spend a week drinking that extra glass of water, you can add a second. That way, you’re connecting a new action with a behaviour that’s already in place.

Additionally, as important it is to set realistic goals in your resolutions, it is equally important to celebrate your wins. You cannot possibly wait to get to the end of the year to pat yourself on the back for all you’ve achieved in the year that was. Take out time to raise yourself a monthly toast, and/ or a weekly me-time day!

Photo: Japheth Mast

Your employers will look beyond your scores and will be interested in the overall strengths that you bring to the table. Classroom discussions, internships, events, hobbies, those are the things that really develop your competence. So, the job part? Future-You has that sorted.

If you’re not very big on self-pampering, remember that it too will act as a reinforcement for your brain to follow your routine!

Lastly, be kinder to yourself. Whether you take longer than expected for a resolution to become a habit, or whether you fail sometimes, or are unable to follow through at all, remember that something in you wanted to make things better.

Despite everything that the past year threw at you, you’re still trying to prioritize your well-being. A spirit like that deserves its own celebration.

(Author: Samreen Chhabra works as a Senior Research Fellow at Jindal Institute of Behavioural Sciences)