Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared on the University of Minnesota Physicians website.
Every January, we pack into gyms and health food outlets in pursuit of New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, live healthier or start a fitness routine.
But a month later, many of us have given up, scaled back or ditched the yoga mat for the familiar comfort of our living room couch.
We all have a million reasons for slipping up: work, family, a bum knee or the new season of your favorite TV show. Old habits die hard, and kick-starting a new routine isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
But there are strategies and tactics you can use to maximize your potential for long-term success. Here to help is Dr. Michael Miller, a University of Minnesota Physicians psychologist and an expert in behavioral change.
“When we talk about a habit as a behavior, we’re really talking about a behavior or routine that gets reinforced by internal or external factors until it has become a part of our daily life,” Miller said. Those reinforcing factors can be biological or social, he added. For example, a smoker may feel a rush when he or she lights up—a biological reinforcement—and share a positive conversation with other smokers during his or her smoke break—a social reinforcement.
The longer a person has followed a bad habit or behavior, the more difficult that behavior is to break, Miller said. The idea that the body and mind pick up new routines after 21 days of consistent behavior isn’t true. On average, it takes 66 days for a person to construct a new pattern of behavior, Miller said.
So how do you get to that point?
Miller recommends using a SMART strategy to reach your goals and maintain your New Year’s resolution. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-related.
Overly vague or broad New Year’s resolutions are bad. A goal should be focused or targeted.
How concrete are the criteria for your goal? How will you know once you’ve reached your goal?
Who is responsible for your resolution? In most cases, you are. But will you need help from family, friends or professionals?
Simply put, your goal needs to be attainable given the resources and time available.
Give yourself a specific timeline. Most people work more effectively with a tangible deadline.
Finally, Miller believes that you should reward yourself. Have you accomplished a crucial step on the way to your goal? Reward yourself with positive reinforcement. Just don’t go so overboard that you compromise your ability to reach said goal.
You also have learn to accept little failures, Miller said.
“You’re going to face setbacks. No one is perfect. The key is how you accept the setbacks and keep going,” Miller said.