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How to keep New Year's resolutions (for real this time)

When we commit to a lifestyle change or a healthy habit — something new or something being revisited — we’re curious, we’re enthusiastic, and the novelty keeps us engaged. We tell ourselves that this time, we’re going to stick to it. But it’s natural that despite having the best intentions, our resolve can wane, and our commitment can slip.

This is true for many of our most popular New Year’s resolutions, whether we’re hoping to get into shape, make a lifestyle shift, or gain a new hobby. In fact, it’s estimated that around 80% of resolutions have been dropped by February. Our stick-to-itiveness comes unstuck. Our motivation fails to align with our goal. But we don’t need to live in this cycle of making promises to ourselves that we don’t keep. We simply need to reframe how we commit to something — and that all boils down to our intention and motivation.

Ultimately, we need to feel motivated to make any sort of change, and so we need clarity around the why. Why are we making this change? Why do we want to adopt this new habit? For example, we could say “I want to meditate so I can be less reactive with my family.” Or “I want to lose weight to fit into my dream dress for summer.” The right motivation, supported by clarity around the why, makes new routines more likely to stick.

When we meditate, we cultivate the clarity that makes the why become obvious. What’s more, we also train the mind to set a goal without expectation, and without any sense of judgment. So should we fall short, we don’t give ourselves a hard time about it. That’s another benefit of meditation — our mind becomes kinder and more accepting, without becoming too hung up on the outcome. But the aim of the game is to stick to our resolutions, and that’s where intentions come in.

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Key takeaways:

  • Adopting new habits takes time, patience, and self-compassion

  • Meditation can help us create a settled mind that is ready to embrace change

  • Try 6 meditations for sticking to New Year’s resolutions

Setting an intention

The biggest obstacle that arises when trying to stick to a new habit doesn’t tend to be the skills we need. We know how to run, or how to make a salad, or how to sit still and meditate. But where there’s no will, there’s no way. So how do we keep ourselves honest, and make sure we’re still on-track with our resolution by the spring and beyond?

So, we’ve become clear on our motivation. We know why we want to make a change for the good. And a good tip here is that it helps if it becomes about what we want to achieve, not what we want to stop. But having motivation and clarity isn’t enough — we need to set the intention, too. By saying something out loud, or by even writing it down, we are informing the mind about the change we intend to make … and the more positive the better. We could, for example, intend to meditate every day to make ourselves feel happier. Research actually shows 10 days of Headspace results in increased positivity, so it’s a habit that helps to sustain itself.

Then, with our intention set, it’s important that we be kind to ourselves on the journey; the kinder and more gentle we are with ourselves, the less tension there is around the resolution itself. We all make mistakes, skip a day, drift off course, or maybe even go a few days without honoring our commitment. Meditation helps us to create a settled and contented mind, and not overreact to the bumps we will inevitably face when trying to take a new road. Specific meditation techniques can help as we try to treat ourselves with the self-compassion needed to make a positive change. Through loving-kindness meditation, for example, we first cultivate a sense of compassion towards ourselves, and then to others.

Creating the right environment, inside and out

There are practical steps we can take to help with how to keep New Year’s resolutions, whether our aim is to commit to a meditation practice, or another goal. Research has shown group support and tracking our progress can both help with how to make New Year’s resolutions stick — and these are both among the resources offered to members in the Headspace app, which tracks the number of minutes we spend meditating, as well as our streak of how many days in a row we meditate, and also includes real-time guided group sessions every 30 minutes, every day.

But we should also be realistic about our goals. If our mornings are hectic, then we might look to find another time of day that suits a new pursuit. In the case of meditation, just 10 minutes a day — during any time of day — is enough to transform the mind. In the case of committing to the gym, we know how we are wired, and whether a morning or evening workout suits us best. When Andy Puddicombe talks about committing to meditation, he’s really talking about how we’d approach the integration of any new skill, hobby, or habit into our lives — it’s all about a little-and-often, slowly-but-surely approach. Meditate for two minutes a day to start with. Go on a one-mile walk to ease into a fitness regime. Or start with 10lb weights, not 25lb. If we keep in mind our intention, and remind ourselves about the why, the motivation will keep us going.

Whether we’re trying to save money or help save the planet, we won’t see meaningful results overnight. But by creating the right environment, we can give ourselves the best chance to stay on track. Avoiding the stores where we tend to splurge cash, or the places we don't make eco-friendly choices, can all help. Then, when it comes to creating the right internal conditions, meditation has science-backed benefits including reduced stress, improved focus, and increased resilience, which can make sure the mind is best prepared for healthy habits to prevail.

Some more tricks for maintaining a habit

Whether we’re trying to commit to a meditation practice or improve our health and happiness another way, there are various other methods recommended by experts to help habits stick. One strategy is called habit anchors, which is to attach a new habit we want to adopt to an anchor, an action we already do daily as part of our routine. For example, if we walk the dog every day, but would like to start meditating, we can start to meditate every day as soon as we’re home from our walk, and a new routine is formed.

Some experts believe another, somewhat related process called the “habit loop” formula is central to the forming of habits, or disrupting old ones. In his book, “The Power of Habit,” Pulitzer Prize-winning productivity writer Charles Duhigg describes the habit loop as a combination of cue, routine, reward, and craving. To establish a new routine, he believes we need a cue (something that triggers our behavior); a reward (the benefit we get from completing your routine); and a craving (the urge we get once our brain starts to associate our cue with the anticipated reward). So, for example, if we’re trying to make meditation a habit, we could make taking a shower our cue, and the feeling of calm and clarity we get when we’ve finished meditating as our reward. And eventually the craving for those positive feelings will encourage us to set aside some time each day, after our shower, for our practice.

However, it’s important not to place too much emphasis on results when trying to establish a new habit. Instead, we could aim to be kind to ourselves, and focus on the journey. If we can enjoy that journey, and take our goals day by day, knowing that small, incremental changes are making a difference and building toward a larger goal, we might surprise ourselves. We might even find that our New Year’s resolution is still going strong well into the summer and beyond!

Try 6 meditations for sticking to New Year’s resolutions

Looking for more meditations to help you stick to New Year’s resolutions? The Headspace app offers members several courses and single meditations that can help sustaining healthy habits, including:

  • Approaching Change meditation. Climb the mountain. Your mind is at the top.

  • Coping with Cravings course. Create the conditions for healthy change.

  • Mindful Eating course. Become more aware of your relationship with food.

  • Patience course. Learn to recognize impatience and let it go.

  • Focus meditation. Bring out the innate focus within you.

  • Self-Compassion course. Practice treating yourself with unconditional kindness.

Bathroom scales, bank balances, or daily meditation streaks can all be useful tools to measure our progress and help us with how to stick to a New Year’s resolution. But really, the proof of progress is in how we feel. And if we’re trying every day, then we’re succeeding. Andy says, “Forget the idea of progress, let go of the need to judge. The important thing is to show up, and as long as you do that, you’re on the right path.”

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