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Having trouble keeping your New Year’s resolutions? Choose habits instead

Posted on Feb. 7, 2018 ( comments)
New Year's resolutions list

We’re one month into 2018. If you made New Year’s resolutions, have you stuck with them?

If you have, that’s great news — many people don’t make it past the first few weeks.

If you haven’t, don’t fret — there’s another approach to making life changes that could be more effective.

Bev Utt, a wellness dietitian and health educator with MultiCare’s Center for Healthy Living, recommends starting new habits over goals/resolutions.

The difference between the two is that goals have endpoints, whereas habits are intended to be permanent changes in our behavior.

Goals rely on willpower. It’s common to revert to past behavior after a goal is reached — for example, going back to a sedentary lifestyle or poor eating habits after losing a set amount of weight.

But habits become automatic and long-lasting if you engage in them long enough.

“Habits rewire our brain to act in a new and different way,” Utt says.

So, how do you develop a new habit?

1. Identify habits related to the goal you want.


  • If your goal is to lose 30 pounds, you could develop the habit of walking most days of the week.
  • If you want to gain muscle tone, you could start with one sit-up or one push-up every day.
  • If you want to write a book, your habit could be to write 300 words every day.

One of the reasons habits can be so effective is that they create a ripple or “cascade” effect in which one good habit leads to other good results.

For example, Utt says, a coworker of hers wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables, so she started making a daily smoothie packed with produce. As a result, she lost 10 pounds — a bonus result of her new habit.

Another coworker wanted to drink more water, so she made pitchers of infused water to make it more appealing. In addition to drinking more water, she also felt less tired in the afternoons at work and less bloated overall.

“One habit can give you many good results,” Utt says. “When we choose habits well, they’ll give us results beyond what we might expect.”

2. Build the habit by starting small.

Set yourself up for success by starting small with your new habits.

For the first habit above — walking most days of the week — you could start by walking 5 minutes every weekday. Then you could gradually increase that to 10 minutes, then 20 and so on.

“Once the habit becomes ingrained, you can increase the complexity or intensity,” Utt says.

Other ways to start small:

If your habit is to consume fewer calories, an easy way to do this (that doesn’t feel like deprivation) is to serve dinner on a small salad plate instead of a large dinner plate.

You could also “front-load” your meals by eating a large breakfast, moderate lunch and small dinner, a practice that imitates the habits of some of the healthiest people in the world.

If you want to eat more fruits and veggies, try including a piece of fruit with every meal or packing fruit as a snack at work.

If you’re aiming to move more, you could try a habit of burning at least 100 calories a day. Here are some activities that accomplish that:

  • Elliptical machine: 8 minutes
  • Walking stairs: 11 minutes
  • Shooting hoops: 20 minutes
  • Driving range: 30 minutes
  • Raking leaves: 23 minutes
  • Mowing lawn: 20 minutes
  • Walking the dog: 26 minutes

3. Practice the 20-second rule of change.

Sometimes it’s hard to get started with a new habit because we’re overwhelmed by the number of steps involved — we want to make a healthy dinner, but it involves writing a grocery list, traveling to and from the grocery store, washing and prepping ingredients, cooking and finally cleanup.

If you instead just focus on the first step of the process, you lower the barrier to change and it’s much easier to get going. In this particular example, focus on just writing a grocery list.

“If you start with the very first action you need to take — a sticky note of your grocery list or putting your gym clothes in your car — those things take about 20 seconds and they can give us that initial spark of energy to get started,” Utt says.

4. Try a tried-and-true habit.

If you’re still not sure where to start, here’s a list of behaviors of people who successfully lost weight and maintained the weight loss, from the National Weight Control Registry:

  • Modified their food intake in some positive way
  • Increased physical activity, averaging about 1 hour per day (most participants walked)
  • Ate breakfast every day
  • Weighed in at least once a week
  • Watched less than 10 hours of TV per week

About The Author

Roxanne Cooke

Roxanne Cooke tells stories in words, photos and video.

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