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Set your New Year’s resolution on autopilot

Here’s a fun (and slightly depressing) New Year’s fact: many people’s New Year’s resolutions are broken within a week. In spite of this, time and again, people begin their annual “New Year, New You!” because this year, it will be different!

Whether you’ve fallen in with the “broken resolution” crowd or not, the great news is that 2020 is still young—you can choose, today, to make this year’s resolution stick. How? By setting your goals on autopilot by modifying your existing habits!

Let’s first look at this: what exactly is a habit?

Simply put, a habit is routine behavior we do automatically. Think about your morning routine—what’s the first thing you do? Do you shut off the alarm on your phone and blearily start scrolling through social media? Zombie your way over to the coffee maker and press the “on” button? Or, for those of you lucky morning people, do you slip on your tennis shoes and running shorts and go for a quick run? Each and any one of these is a habit. By definition, we don’t think about these behaviors, we just do them. Habits are simply our personal autopilot settings. Trying to create a new habit, getting that behavior to be so ingrained that we do not think about it, is a challenge—but with the right tools, it can be done!

When it comes to New Year’s Resolutions, you likely have the first two crucial parts of creating a new habit: you know that you need to make a change and you are motivated to begin. The part where most people run out of steam is in creating the habit loop. The habit loop is an intentional series of steps that, when done together, can lead to a new habit that can last.

Let’s take a look at the three components of the habit loop: The trigger is the first part of creating an intentional loop. The trigger is an existing habit--an activity or action that is part of an already established routine, such as brewing your first cup of coffee in the morning. This trigger is what we leverage and link the new desired behavior or action to. This new, desired behavior or action is the second component of the loop. This action is what will eventually become the new habit—something you will do automatically. The third, and final component is the reward. It is what tells your brain that doing the action is worthwhile.

Now, let's examine how this may work in a real-life wellness situation: imagine a senior family member has made the resolution to improve their balance. They are aware that as they age they have an increased risk for falls. They value independence and therefore are motivated to start exercising to help improve their balance and reduce the risk of falling. They’ve done the research, they’ve learned how to do the exercise, and they’re ready to get started. With those factors in place, the habit loop can begin.

To make the balance exercises a habit, the person needs to first identify a current habit that they can link the exercises to. It is this trigger that is going to tell the brain to go into automatic mode—this is the program your brain’s autopilot will follow. Let’s imagine this person is a coffee drinker and brews a pot of coffee every morning. They select this current action to now link the new exercises to, and they do their exercises while the coffee is brewing, standing at the kitchen counter. Once the pot is brewed, the exercises are done, and the reward is getting that piping hot cup of fresh coffee! Behavior health scientists say that playing this mental game is a phenomenal way to get us to permanently change behaviors--find a trigger, do the action, and get a reward!

Your reward matters—it can be something you experience immediately, like the coffee example, or it can be something more long-term. In this case, there may be several rewards. Another reward may be treating yourself to something special when you hit a particular milestone. For instance, after a week of not missing a day of exercise, going out with a friend for a coffee could be an additional reward. After a month, a bigger reward, such as buying a new pair of walking shoes, can motivate you to keep going. There are also the intrinsic rewards of feeling stronger, more stable and able-bodied. Being aware of what benefits the new action is intended to bring and recognizing them is the most impactful reward of all.

Turning your resolutions onto auto-pilot is effective. Research conducted at Duke University found that more than 40 percent of what we do each day, nearly half of our day, is due to habits that have become automatic. At one point, we made the conscious choice to perform those actions, but eventually, we programmed ourselves and took the mental load off it. And you can do it again!

Forming a new habit can take 8-10 weeks to take hold, so establishing a routine is very important. If we stick to the habit loop, the new action becomes a routine part of daily life—your autopilot. So, get back on that New Year’s resolution if you’ve fallen off! Now is a great time to re-start, with new knowledge of what will help create a habit that lasts!

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