Here’s the plain truth: If your annual goals or New Year’s resolutions feel like chores, or if they feel overwhelming, or if they feel even a little difficult, you likely won’t do them over the long run. If they are something you feel like you “should” do, but that you don’t actually want to do, eventually you won’t do them at all.
All is not lost. Consider rewriting your annual goals into something more fun. Many people feel like doing something that is fun and easy doesn’t count, especially if it is supposed to be good for you. You want something impressive, right? Maybe something that will make you immediately look better in a bathing suit. No pain, no gain, right?
Wrong. You have a choice: Do something hard and ambitious for a short period of time and then quit it, or do something that makes you feel something you want to feel for the rest of your life. I promise the people who know about these things (like your doctor, therapist, or coach) want you to pick the healthy or productive habit that you are going to stick with, no matter how unambitious. This is about hardwiring a good habit into your brain that you can build on later.
If we want our habits to stick, we need to start really, really small. It is hard for us humans to make lots of behavior changes all at once. Creating a new habit or routine can take a great deal of energy and focus, and we have only so much self-control in a given day to work with. Also, you might have noticed that the global crisis that we are in is pretty distracting these days, which makes piling individual change on top of massive societal change even harder.
So, the first step is to break your desired habit down into its most simple behavior, something you can do in less than five minutes from start to finish. Do this knowing that you are starting to carve a neural pathway in your brain that will eventually become an unshakable habit.
The first few steps of establishing any new habit can be hard, though, so you need to do something really, really, really easy—something that requires so little effort that your brain doesn’t put up any resistance when you start it, and you can feel successful for completing it. The idea is to create a habit that doesn’t depend on effort or willpower, so this first extraordinarily unambitious habit is about initiating the neural pathway—starting to form the groove—and nothing else.
Once you have a routine or resolution so easy you have no excuse not to do it, this will be your “Better Than Nothing” (BTN) habit or resolution. Mine was to change into my walking shoes and walk our dogs to the end of the block. You will be able to do your BTN routine when you are exhausted, when you have no time, when you are a little under the weather, and when you really feel like staying on the couch. For me, this means a teeny little bit of physical activity that is better than not moving at all.
Every few days, you can expand this routine if you want to, but only if you are itching to do more, and only if the expansion feels really easy.
If, at any time, you feel any resistance to your BTN routine, you’ll know it isn’t yet easy enough. Start by cutting it in half in terms of time and effort. Many people need to start with something that takes less than 30 seconds—say, putting your shoes on and walking out the door. This sounds ridiculous, I know. Remember, we are all about establishing the neural pathway at this stage in the game, and to do that, all we need to do is associate your anchor or trigger with something that will someday become a habit.
Even after you start expanding, you’ll need to hang on to some form of a BTN routine: something you can still do even when you aren’t feeling great, when you don’t have time, and when the unexpected happens. We can do this by making the activities themselves more rewarding—more fun—by pairing them with things we enjoy.
For example, I love reading, so I listen to audiobooks while I clean up at the end of each evening. My husband watches TikTok while he takes his huge pile of supplements in the morning. Remember that when you are first building a new habit, any action is better than none. Once you’ve started, there are tricks to help you stay on track—little things that make your effort feel rewarding. Here are three of them.
Tricks to Stay on Track
Use B.J. Fogg’s “Yay me!” reward: When you finish doing what you intend to do, congratulate yourself. I’m a huge fan of this one because it’s easy and it works. Even something as small as a short mental victory dance can trigger a little hit of dopamine, enough to tell your brain to repeat whatever you just did. So, when I find myself outside walking around in the fresh air, I congratulate myself.
Really relish the positive emotions that your new habit elicits. Be intentional about this. “Take in the good” of them, as psychologist Rick Hanson would say. For example, I tend to feel happiest when I’m exercising outside and I consciously look up at the trees (rather than down at the trail, as I am inclined). When I look up at the trees, I tend to feel a warm, relaxing sense of awe spread over me. I try to do this each time I’m out, so that I can really feel the calm.
Add something to your new habit that you’ll look forward to when you think about it. I supercharged my desire to get out on the trail with my dogs by letting myself listen to audiobooks while I walk. Because I’d read about the incredible benefits of mindfulness, I felt like I “should” make myself just walk quietly in nature, undistracted, when out on a hike. But then I noticed that I most wanted to get outside and walk when I had something I couldn’t wait to get back to listening to … and I decided to give myself permission to do something I really enjoy. This means that I’m even more committed to my hikes, because, as Michelle Segar compellingly writes, “We approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad.”
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of “The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction” (BenBella, 2020), former director of the GGSC, and served for many years as the author of its parenting blog, Raising Happiness. This article was first published by the Greater Good online magazine.