Just a few weeks into the new year, many of the resolutions people made on January 1st will be abandoned, and many others will have not resulted in a single day of changed behavior. Why?

One of the most common reasons New Year’s resolutions don’t stick is that people choose resolutions that are too difficult, and promise themselves changes that are too big.

We make big promises to ourselves because we want big results. We want to transform our bodies, our minds, our diets, our careers or our bank accounts.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, offers some advice for planning life changes:

  • Aim to be great in 10 years. Build health habits today that lead to a great body in 10 years.
  • When making plans, think big. When making progress, think small.
  • “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” (By systems he means your habits, routines, and surroundings.)

In October of last year, I took this advice to heart and built a new exercise habit, working out in the office gym before I started work each day.

I designed my exercise behavior to incorporate all of the criteria necessary to meet the scientific definition of a habit.

  • I now do it almost automatically (it feels weird if I don’t workout)
  • I do it at the same time of day and in the same place each time
  • It’s less about the workout, and more about the act of getting myself to the gym
  • I have rewards baked in (e.g., a nice shower and good coffee post-workout)

My resolution for 2021 is to do longer, better workouts. Whereas last year, many of my workouts were only 5 minutes (seriously), and never longer than 15 minutes, this year I’m making time for 30-minute workouts.

Here’s why the “start small” approach, like a short 5-minute workout, can be so effective:

The main benefit of those 5-minute workouts last fall was not their “health benefit” but, rather, their “system building” benefit. I always had enough time to go to the gym for 5 minutes. There was no excuse. In the early days, that helped a lot.

Now, 4 months into my new exercise habit, it’s pretty effortless to get myself into the gym each morning I’m at work. And the 30-minute workout is satisfying if not enjoyable (two months ago I think I would have dreaded it).

One caveat: If I have to stay home in the morning to deal with a house or family matter, I miss my habit window. Getting to the gym in the afternoon (outside of my morning window), is painful and effortful, and not automatic. So, I don’t do it.

I’m feeling, firsthand, that for habits, time and place consistency is everything. Time and place are a huge part of the “system” that James Clear talks about. And they are a huge part of the “how” that Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, talks about when she says a habit is “not what the action is” but rather “how you perform an action” (pg. 25).

You can deploy the use of the “start small” approach to increase your fruit and vegetable intake. We’ve discussed a few ways to do so throughout our series including starting your meal with fruits and vegetables and increasing exposure.

You can read more about these and other tips through our “Create Better Resolutions” series. Happy New Year!

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