January is the month when we promise ourselves we’re going to make positive changes in our lives. Advertisers hit us with “New Year, New You” messages. Friends tell us about their resolution plans. In response, we might either catch the wave of excitement and make resolutions, or feel overwhelmed enough to blow it all off, scoop up a big bowl of ice cream, hit the couch and binge Netflix. New Year or not, it’s possible to build healthy habits and achieve goals and dreams. Transforming new behaviors into strong habits only takes about ten weeks if you repeat the action each day, according to National Institutes of Health. I’ve seen it in my own life. Using this top ten list, I quit smoking, kicked a ten-year hard-core drug habit, wrote two books, earned five professional certifications, and built a business as a speaker. Check it out:
1. Decide on a goal. Make it measurable and realistic. If your goal is solving world hunger, you can translate your intentions into action by keeping it small. Begin locally, in the community where you live, by volunteering at or donating to a local food bank. You’ll be thinking about other people, and that creates motivation to keep going. Your involvement locally will lead to opportunities at state level and beyond. A simple way to make your big goal measurable and realistic is to work the process one day at a time. Whether your goal is eating less sugar, writing a book, getting in shape, or earning a degree or credential, you can map out the process in one-day increments.
2. Choose a time and place to put your new practice or behavior into action. This process helps your brain to store information that will reinforce your efforts as you move forward to your ultimate goal. For example, if you want to write a book, set a time a place to write each day, or one day a week, depending on your schedule and lifestyle. Then stick to it — take an hour or two to write. Don’t worry about how much you write, that’s beside the point. What you’re doing is teaching your brain to engage in the new activity each day at that same time.
3. Set mini goals, steps you can take each day on the way to the ultimate goal. Every big win in life is actually a series of thousands of daily baby steps. This is a strategy used by Navy Seals and Special Forces. If your goal is to do a hundred push-ups, your mini-goal is one push-up at a time, one hundred times. Celebrate each push-up in your mind, then do the next rep. If you can only do one push-ups the first day, celebrate that, and keep increasing the number as you get stronger. Celebration keeps you motivated, and raises the levels of positive neurotransmitters in your brain, so you feel good working toward your ultimate goal.
4. Forget about expectations, and remember, your progress is your progress. You never have to compare yourself to anyone else, or live up to some impossible standard. You’re making plans to achieve a goal or realize a dream, and that’s nobody’s business but yours. Avoid unreasonable expectations that give you a feeling of failure. Instead, feel successful for charting a new course in life. You walk with your success, not toward it.
5. Use “If-then” plans to create new, beneficial habits. The idea is to get past the good intention stage and into action. Set up a strategy for taking a positive, healthy action at the moment a specific opportunity or obstacle to your goal presents itself. When I quit smoking, back in 1994, my plan was,* if *I think about smoking, *then* I will chew sugarless gum till the craving goes away. My plan included carrying several packs of gum with me all day, every day, for months. It worked! You can use if-then, focusing on opportunity, to reinforce a good habit, like mediating, e.g., *if* it’s 8:00 p.m., *then* I will meditate.
6. For best results, repeat, replay, reward! Repetition in a daily, fun and rewarding context will help to anchor a new habit in your brain. This year, I’m focusing on eating less sugar. My sugar cravings are strongest after dinner. After dinner every night, instead of browsing social media on my phone and eating cookies, I take a walk around the block and look at the stars. Or I listen to my favorite music and dance around the house. I started this new plan in early December, and my cravings are decreasing.
7. Revel in your resolution, even if/when you goof up. Each day, mentally congratulate yourself on making the decision. Applaud yourself for taking action. Pick a time each day or night to celebrate. One or two goof-up days will not interrupt the ten-week process of getting that good habit deeply rooted. Celebrate a goof-up as an opportunity to embrace the process and get back on track.
8. Review and mentally rehearse your plan of action to face challenges or obstacles. Positive visualization is a powerful tool you can harness to maintain your new program and progress. Take time each day to “see” yourself accomplishing goals and overcoming upcoming obstacles or challenges. If you can see it, you can believe it, and if you can believe it, you will achieve it. This isn’t hack or cliche. It’s evidence-based, and it works.
9. Get connected, and stay connected. Isolation can inhibit your progress. Get connected with like-minded people who share your goals. Align yourself with a bigger-than-self purpose or meaning. When you’re connected to social support and a higher purpose, you can rock your goals.
10. Stay the course. Persistence = Luck, and Vice Versa. Continue to take action. Focus on the long game. Celebrate your mistakes as opportunities to learn more about yourself, others, and life. When you’re persistent, day after day, you anchor positive behaviors, expand your network, and make your own good luck.
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
— Francis of Assisi