As the new decade begins, you probably came up with a few resolutions worthy of a decade where humans will push the limits of space exploration and A.I. will become less of an abstract and more of a central part of human life. If you made a New Year’s resolution, you’re also probably aware of the pessimistic statistics that surround them.
Humans have been making New Year’s resolutions for about 4,000 years, when the Babylonians took an opportunity to repay their debts or return items they’d borrowed during a festival called Akitu. Despite millennia of vowing to be better, humans are not any better at keeping our resolutions than we were 4,000 years ago. Research done in the ‘80s found that only 43 percent of people stuck to their resolutions after three months.
That bleak history doesn’t speak to the futility of resolutions; they just show how hard it is to change our behavior. Humans tend to prefer “default” options, whatever they may be This is sometimes called status quo bias.
Behavior change is at the heart of basically any New Year’s resolution you have, which is one of the reasons keeping them feels so hard. To combat that, you have to learn to take a resolution and turn it into a habit you don’t have to think twice about.
One expert in habit formation tells Inverse there’s no way to hasten the process, but there are ways to set yourself up for success.
The pursuit of automaticity
Phillippa Lally is a senior research fellow at University College London’s Department of Behavioral Science and Health. In 2009, she published a paper intended to show just how long it took 96 people to form a new eating, drinking, or exercise habit — from “running for 15 minutes before dinner” to “drinking a glass of water after breakfast.”
That paper, which has been cited over 1,000 times in the intervening 11 years, found that the average amount of time it took for these goals to become habits was 66 days.
Lally tells Inverse that 66 days isn’t the magic bullet for habit formation as it appears to be. She found that some people were able to form habits as quickly as 18 days, whereas for others it took as long as 254 days. Instead, the most important thing her study identified is that habit formation follows an asymptotic curve:
This curve shows the relationship between doing your chosen activity and the “automaticity” of that activity — which is basically when you start to feel an impulse to perform that activity. (Her team used surveys that evaluated automaticity on a scale of 0 to 42.) If you look at the early days of the experiment, you can see that there are big jumps in automaticity. But over time those jumps get smaller and smaller and the curve starts to “plateau.”
“With each subsequent repetition, the increase is a bit less, until you reach a point at which the behavior has reached its peak of automaticity. And with each new repetition, the automaticity you experience when you enter the situation remains stable,” Lally says.
Once you hit that “peak,” the automaticity gains start to plateau. That’s the point at which your resolution has transformed into a habit.
“You can consider the time it takes people to reach this plateau to represent the time it takes their habit to form,” she says.
That 66 days is just a ballpark measure to give you an idea of how long the road to habit formation actually is. To get to that plateau, her advice is to “try to be as consistent as you can.”
Inevitably, you will miss an opportunity to perform your habit of choice. If you’ve decided to run every morning, you’ll sleep in or take a well-deserved day off. Fortunately, Lally says this won’t set you back very much. Missing just one day of an activity reduced a person’s “automaticity” score by .29, a “very small decrease” that didn’t have any major consequences in the long term.
In the paper, the team points out that missing larger chunks of time, like a week, can significantly derail habit formation. So, again, there’s no shortcut for consistency.
Finally, take heart in the fact that you make the biggest automaticity gains right out of the gate. That means you can use these early days of January, when you’re feeling newly inspired to pursue new goals. Every time you actually follow through on your resolution, you’re putting money in your automaticity bank and setting yourself up for success once the new year loses its shine.
How to structure your resolutions
Lally says that the best way to apply her work to a New Year’s resolution is to frame that goal in a specific way. Once you decide what your goal is, you need to find a cue for that goal.
In her study, people were told to bake that “cue” into their goals. They pledged to do 50 sit-ups “after my morning coffee” or go for a run “before dinner.” That time element is a situational cue that should trigger that behavior.
The cue doesn’t have to be time-oriented, but it does have to be recognizable enough that it becomes associated with the desired behavior in your mind.
“It is crucial that there is a cue for the behavior. Otherwise, the behavior could be performed in various situations and a habit won’t form,” says Lally.
From there, she recommends that you follow this formula to write down your goals:
In situation X, I will perform behavior Y.
This type of structure, says Lally, is called an implementation intention. Instead of pledging to “go to the gym more,” frame it like this: “After work on Tuesday, I will go to the gym.”
Then, repeat the desired behavior as many times as possible when you get into situation X. That way you’ll start working your way along the asymptotic curve and move towards the plateau of automaticity.
Try this tactic
Though Lally describes herself as “quite a routine person,” she’s taught her daughter about implementation intentions by asking her to repeat her goals aloud using the in situation X, I will perform behavior Y format:
“If I ask her to remind me of something later, she will make a plan and repeat it aloud three times. For example, “When we get home, I will remind mummy to put the washing on.”
Talking out loud to yourself or writing down your goals is a method that expert musicians also use to learn new skills. In this case, it can help you pursue the automaticity that turns a resolution into a habit.