The Secret to Making Resolutions Stick…Reprogram Your Habits!

The competition to attract and retain good talent is stiff in today’s job market. While salary and benefits are often the biggest investment a company makes in its employees, there are other ways organizations can set themselves apart. And as savvy companies know, a key tool used to make potential hires sit up and take notice is in  providing professional development opportunities for their employees.

Imagine you’re getting ready to do what most of us do this time every year, write New Year’s resolutions. This year, you vow things will really be different; you’ll accomplish what you set out to get done; this year you’re going to stick to your resolutions. At about that moment a genie appears dramatically from nowhere and says what genies always say…”You are granted one wish.”

So what will it be?

After you get over your initial shock of actually being offered whatever you want, you have to start thinking about what that one wish (and it couldn’t be 100 other wishes) could be. It’s an interesting question to ponder – what do you really want?

Money is the most common answer, according to research. And yet we’ve all read articles or heard stories about lottery winners who went broke within a year and were often more unhappy than before they received their winnings. Money does not, it seems, bring us happiness unless we use it for something meaningful. However whatever we do decide we want, it must be chosen deliberately.

Think about Stephen Covey’s classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and his advice to “begin with the end in mind.” If we aren’t really clear about what we want our resolutions (or wishes) to be, then it would seem we’re not about to get them. Obviously, we need to know what we really want, and from that vantage point it’s easier to strategize and achieve our goals and dreams.

What’s your short answer to the genie? Stimulating career, growth opportunities, losing weight, going on a dream vacation? Our beliefs and values must line up with our goals or we will not have the tenacity needed to stick with them.  Seems there are two important reasons New Year’s Resolutions are often abandoned early on. First, we aren’t crystal clear about what we want, and second we don’t create the mindset we need to overcome habitual thinking that overrides our new goals.

To create and actually get those resolutions this year, begin with knowing precisely what you want and see it happen from an emotional perspective. For example, if your goal is to lose 20 pounds, then imagine feeling excited about buying a new size and the satisfaction of knowing you actually had the will-power to stick with the diet. And you look so good!

That’s only the first step; seeing it like you already have accomplished it. This, by the way, is the formula Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps uses before every mete. His coach Bob Bowman taught him to create a mental video of swimming perfectly, despite anything that was going on in the pool. Phelps would see himself winning, and if an obstacle interfered (leg cramp, goggles filled with water) he still “saw” himself swimming perfectly. He had programmed himself to see this as if it were already a done deal, and he visualized his way to a sizable number of gold medals.

Again, seeing it as if it’s here is only half the strategy. To make the resolutions really stick it’s important to understand that creating any new behavior starts with examining the habitual thinking that has gotten us stuck in the first place. You’ve got to know your trigger, know what will knock you off your game plan, so to speak. For instance, if you want to speak with confidence every time you go into a certain meeting, but you start to get nervous whenever your boss walks in, then you have to be aware of that emotional trigger and find an alternative. Same thing happens with losing 20 pounds. If you have great will power but on Saturday nights with friends you can’t resist a bottle of wine and two desserts, or if you start snacking every time you hit a tough problem at work, then until you change how you respond to these situations, you’ll be planning to lose 20 pounds for the rest of your life.

Charles Duhigg in his extraordinary book The Power of Habit, explains how to do just that. He says that any habit (getting nervous in front of the boss or snacking when stressed) is simply a habit loop that can be changed; our habits are not our destiny.

Here’s how it works. The process with our brain is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, meaning a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Example, when we feel anxious about a project, we immediately feel hungry. Then there is the routine, which in this case would be to get something to eat. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Cue – routine – reward.

Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic; the cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges and we have ourselves a new habit. And unless we deliberately fight a habit – unless we find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.  Habits never really disappear. They are encoded into the structures of our brain.

The good news is that almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.  To change a habit, we must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule; if you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.

Going back to the resolution mentioned earlier, if the cue for eating is feeling anxious, then the idea is to find a different routine to get to the reward. Maybe it’s taking a break or calling a friend. The idea is to find a routine that will elicit a great feeling, so the reward will be the same without food. This is how people can create habits of running each morning regardless of weather or energy level. If the reward (the endorphins) are great enough, no matter what the circumstances, the runner wants to run.

Bottom line, making resolutions stick this year is doable. We need to know very clearly and specifically what we want changed, and then we need to realize what the cue, routine and reward are around the habit we want to modify or change. Following this formula can actually make wishes come true and turn resolutions into realities in 2019, even without the help of a genie!

By Jennifer Webb

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