Changing Behavior: How Do We Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick?

29 12 2010

Behavior happens because it is something we have done over and over, i. e. it is a habit, OR it is something that we do because we have a reason for doing it.  Changing behavior, therefore, requires different strategies for these different types of behavior.  Researchers have studied intentional and habitual behavior and have some ideas about how we might make changes.

Behavior that is “new, untried and unlearned” happens as a result of intentions:  a person means to do it for some reason.  As the behavior is repeated, particularly if it takes place in the same context (at the same place, with the same people, etc.) the brain puts it into memory and the behavior becomes guided by habit, a state in which a person doesn’t have to think as much about it – it becomes automatic.  These habitual behaviors become triggered by certain stimuli as they are repeated, and we may find ourselves doing something that we didn’t intend to do.  The repeating of the action builds a memory that links the action with the context in which it takes place.  As a result, well-developed habits may become stronger forces causing behavior than either attitudes or intentions.

Habits have been studied in a number of situations and seem to have four qualities that make them automatic:  a lack of awareness of performing the behavior, difficulty in controlling the behavior, mental efficiency – being able to perform the behavior with little conscious thought, and performing the behavior without actually intending to do it.

Making New Year’s Resolutions work for you:

  • Creating a new habit. If you want to add a positive behavior to your life, find a way to make it a habit.  This will build it into your brain as an automatic function and increase the odds of your keeping it up during the new year.  Repetition in a stable context (consistent in the way you do it, place in which it occurs, etc.) is important.  Eventually you don’t have to give it much thought and the stress of the action is reduced.  As you begin this strategy, your intentions take charge  – you will need to keep thinking about what you are doing and why until you have repeated it enough times that it begins to move into your memory as a habit.  Eventually it will become automatic and you will find yourself doing it often without thinking about it.
  • Stopping unwanted behavior. Researchers suggest that stimulus control (changing the environment) is important for changing behavior that is a response to temptation.  Because the context (or environment) in which the behavior takes place provides the cues that trigger the behavior, avoiding that environment (such as the people, the places, sights and sounds, etc.) is usually necessary.  This strategy will help because you are not exposed to the temptation and reminded of the behavior.  You are stopping it before it starts.
  • Breaking strong habits. Because old habits have been put into your brain so firmly, they require conscious effort to stop. Just changing your intentions is not enough for most people to break a strong habit. It requires vigilant monitoring of your behavior and intervening after the automatic response has been triggered – stopping it after it starts.  This strategy will require more awareness of what you are doing:  you will have to be on high alert for a while.  Each time the habit is triggered you will have to take action to stop it.  You will have to pay attention to break the automatic response.  If you can put into action a new behavior when you realize that you are doing the old unwanted one, a new habit can eventually replace the old one.


Quinn, J. M., Pascoe, A., Wood, W. & Neal, D. T.  (2010). Can’t control yourself?  Monitor those bad habits.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36, 499-511.

Verplanken, B. (2006).  Beyond frequency:  Habit as mental construct.  British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 639-656.

Wood, W., Tam, L. & Witt, M. G.  (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88, 918-933.

Traditions to Treasure

13 12 2010

It’s about now that many of us are taking a look at our lists, and checking them twice.  How are we ever going to get everything done so that we meet the expectations and not work around the clock?  If you really want to know what is important, ask the children what things they look forward to.  As they grow older some traditions are kept, but no one really enjoys doing them anymore, but we are afraid to let go of them.  Ask them to finish this sentence: ” When I think about Christmas Eve (or your special holiday), we always……..”

Whether we are considering what things to decorate, or what extra food to prepare or maybe even the added activities on the list to attend, there may be things to let go of that everyone would be happy with .  Here are a few other things to consider:

Set a plan for the rest of the time you have.  Think about what you can reasonably accomplish in the next few days and give the task the amount of time you have on that day.  Remember to take care of yourself, don’t work so hard and do without sleep that you miss the enjoyment of the holidays.

Work with other family members and assign tasks, so that they can help.  Break large jobs down into smaller ones and let everyone help.  Remember to adjust your expectations and don’t “do over” what younger members may have done.  Remember the meaning of the season isn’t the biggest or the best.

It could be  a rite of passage to get to do the cards, or bake the cookies.  Only do what time allows and don’t shoulder guilt for not doing more.  Consider  cutting back on the  the tasks, maybe only send cards to people we don’t see and we only bake two kinds of cookies instead of four.  It’s ok to let go and downsize. 

Instead of trying to do all the food for the meals, why not share and try a pot luck.  Let everyone bring their favorite dish as it makes your job easier and they contribute to the festivities. 

Maybe it’s the snow outside, or the fact that our girls are older, but I’m finding that the “stuff” isn’t what makes the “season bright”.  It’s the time we spend together, telling stories and sharing favorites of times past.  It’s the joy in the laughter, the twinkle in the eyes and the love that’s shown as we work side by side that creates new traditions to treasure.

Best Wishes to All,

Melinda Hill

OSU Extension Wayne County


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