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The science of sticking to your New Year’s resolution

If you started 2019 with a New Year’s resolution — whatever that goal might be — how best can you turn the promise you made to yourself into a long-term habit?

Starting something new isn’t often that difficult—we’re curious, we’re enthusiastic, and the novelty keeps us engaged. We tell ourselves that this time, this time, it’s going to be different. We are going to follow through. We will stick with it. We won’t quit. New year, new you, right?

But that’s the thing about human nature: despite making the choice to change and having the best intentions, the resolve wanes, our commitment slips, and our stick-to-itiveness fades, whether it’s a new nutritional goal, a new fitness regime, a new hobby, or a New Year’s resolution — and this is particularly true with meditation.

Training the mind takes time and patience if we are to transform the way we relate to our thoughts and emotions. Meditation is a skill that’s only honed with a little-and-often, slowly-but-surely, rinse-and-repeat approach. And therein lies the biggest obstacle — the mind we’re looking to train is the very thing that resists being tamed, creating resistance in the name of boredom, laziness, impatience, and restlessness, to name but a few excuses.

Knowing how to do something new isn’t the problem. We understand how to sit, meditate, and breathe or how to run or lift a weight, and having enough skill is rarely the issue. Ultimately, we need to feel motivated, so having clarity about why we want to make a change means we have a better chance of following through.

Research shows that combining the right motivation with a 30-second action and a “habit anchor” makes new routines more likely to stick.

The right motivation is something tied to your personal values (“I want to meditate because when I feel less stressed, I’m more patient with my family”). A 30-second action is anything that might prompt you to start your new routine (“I will breathe mindfully for 30 seconds before meditating”). And a habit anchor is something you already do as part of an existing daily routine that you can attach that new action to (“I will do this after I brush my teeth”).

Habit formation happens when we repeat an action consistently, in the same way and in the same context, day in and day out, because the mind starts to associate the action with a routine almost on autopilot. It’s these small, incremental changes that can make all the difference.

If you can fill in this sentence, you’re off to a great start: After I _____________ (anchor), I will _____________ (30-second action), which will help me with my goal to _____________ because _____________ (motivation).

Turning a new activity into a habit requires dedication, but sometimes, we slip up. That’s when it’s important to be kind to ourselves and remember why we set our new goal in the first place. It’s also worth noting that researchers at Harvard found that “automaticity” kicks in with a new behavior, on average, after about 66 days. So be patient, stick with it, and use that time wisely!

With all of this in mind, Headspace has pulled together a collection of meditations to help you stick with any new routine in 2019. To learn more or register for a free trial, click here.

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PIR is a Federally funded program. Other consortia members include Gold Coast Health and Mental Health Association QLD