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The holiday season is upon us, and with it come our hopes and aspirations for the new year. Many of us translate these lofty hopes and aspirations into a list of New Year’s resolutions. We resolve to exercise more and eat less, take on a new hobby and get rid of an old habit, spend more time with our loved ones and less time on the screen.
Most of us are pretty good at making beautiful lists, describing all the ways in which we are going to be different from now on — proclaiming that the first day of the first month is indeed going to be the first day of the rest of our life. Though, to bring about change, the three I’s — impressive, insightful and inspiring —are simply not enough.
Research shows that to bring about lasting change what we need instead are the three R’s — reminders, repetition and rituals. Here's why:
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Reminders are external cues in our environment that focus our attention on a particular commitment we made. Some reminders are straightforward and simple, others are a little more complicated and creative.
For example, if you would like to lead a healthier lifestyle, you can remind yourself to exercise regularly by entering your gym times in your planner, just as you would do for a client meeting. A reminder can come in the form of a picture on the wall or on your screensaver of the person who motivates you most to get out of bed and into your running shoes.
Regular reminders can pave the way to repetitive action, which is essential for lasting change. Exercising only for the first week or two of the year, no matter how hard, in all likelihood falls far short of your hopes and aspirations for the new year. Moreover, it is through reminders coupled with repetition, that you get to the promised land of change: the cultivation of rituals.
After sufficient reminders and repetition, a ritual is formed. This is when, physiologically, a neural pathway has been carved out in your brain associated with a particular behavior, a neural pathway that leads you, guides you, to act in a certain way at a certain time. For example, after sufficient reminders and repetition— be it over a period of a month or two — going to the gym three times a week no longer requires extraordinary effort, as it becomes part of your ordinary life, a habit, a ritual. Just as brushing your teeth is.
Extracting yourself from work early twice a week to spend time with your loved ones may initially be a real struggle, but gets easier — much easier — with time. Just as, with practice, hitting a tennis forehand does.
As you remind, repeat and ritualize, keep two things in mind. First, less is more. That long list of New Year’s resolutions is bound to fail. Neural overload is likely to lead you to do nothing. Rather, modest hopes and aspirations that lead to small wins, to gradual change — that is the way to go. Second, don’t worry if you fail. Each time you make an attempt to introduce a change into your life, regardless of whether or not you succeed, you’re reinforcing the neural pathways associated with the particular behavior.
Most people do not succeed the first or second time they attempt to introduce a new ritual. Success on the fifth or sixth attempt is much more likely.
OK, enough reading now. Time to embark on the three R’s journey to lasting change, so that you can have a happier new year.
Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, teaches leadership, happiness and mindfulness to audiences all over the world. He is the author of five previous books, including "Short Cuts to Happiness" and "Choose the Life You Want."