The new year is upon us, and with it come our hopes and aspirations for our “new” lives. Many of us translate these lofty goals into an earthly list of New Year’s resolutions. We resolve to exercise more and eat less, take on a new hobby and get rid of an old habit, or spend more time with our loved ones and less time on the screen.
Most of us are pretty good at making impressive lists, describing all the ways in which we are going to be different from now on—proclaiming that the first day of the first month is, indeed, going to be the first day of the rest of our life. At the same time, most of us fail to realize—to make real—the promise inherent in the list of New Year’s resolutions, no matter how insightful, impressive and inspiring they happen to be.
This is because, to bring about change, these three I’s—being impressive, insightful and inspiring—are simply not enough. Research shows that to bring about lasting change, what we need instead are the three R’s—reminders, repetition and rituals.
In the context of bringing about change, reminders are external cues in our environment that focus our attention on a particular commitment we made. Some reminders are straightforward and simple—others are a little more complicated and creative. For example, if you would like to lead a healthier lifestyle, you can remind yourself to exercise regularly by entering your gym times in your planner, just as you would do for a client meeting you do not want to miss. A reminder can come in the form of a picture on the wall or a screensaver of the person who motivates you to get out of bed and into your running shoes. You can also choose to wear a bracelet to remind you to eat in moderation and once in a while listen to a podcast on healthier living.
Regular reminders can pave the way to repetitive action, which is, of course, essential for lasting change. Exercising only for the first week or two of the year, no matter how hard, in all likelihood falls far short of your hopes and aspirations for the new year. Moreover, it is through reminders coupled with repetition that you get to the promised land of change: the cultivation of rituals.
After sufficient reminders and repetition, a ritual is formed. This is when, physiologically, a neural pathway has been carved out in your brain and is associated with a particular behavior. This neural pathway leads you and guides you to act in a certain way at a certain time. For instance, after sufficient reminders and repetition—be it over a period of a month or two—going to the gym three times a week no longer requires extraordinary effort; it becomes part of your ordinary life, a habit, a ritual. Just as brushing your teeth is. Extracting yourself from work early twice a week to spend time with your loved ones may initially be a real struggle, but it gets easier—much easier—with time. Just as, with practice, hitting a tennis forehand does.
As you remind, repeat and ritualize, keep two things in mind. First, less is more. That long list of New Year’s resolutions is bound to fail. Neural overload is likely to lead you to do nothing. Rather, modest hopes and aspirations that lead to small wins—to gradual change—that is the way to go.
Second, don’t worry if you fail. Each time you attempt to introduce a change into your life, regardless of whether or not you succeed, you’re reinforcing the neural pathways associated with the particular behavior. Most people do not succeed the first or second time they attempt to introduce a new ritual. Success on the fifth or sixth attempt is much more likely.
OK, enough reading now. Time to embark on the three R’s journey to lasting change, so that you can have a happier new year.
**Originally published on Care2