Who among us hasn't approached New Year's – at least once – pledging to lose weight? 'Tis the season for resolutions, whether it's to drop pounds, stop smoking, work less (or more), or clear the clutter from our homes.
But laudable as it may be, setting specific goals isn't the way to go, experts say. For a better shot at succeeding, we need instead to change our habits – defined as recurrent, often unconscious patterns of behavior that we frequently repeat.
"It's definitely better to create what I call process goals, rather than outcome goals," said Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at University of Texas at Austin and author of the upcoming book, "Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate and Get Things Done" (Penguin Group, 2012.
"We're better off saying, 'I'm going to exercise every Tuesday and Thursday at 4 p.m. at the gym up the street' than, 'I'm going to lose 20 pounds,'" Markman said. "The goal of losing 20 pounds is too abstract to carry out – if we knew how to do that, we would have done it already."
But habits – by their very definition – aren't easily altered, and moreover, most don't need to be because they serve important functions, said Ian Newby-Clark, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
"They become automatic or semi-automatic over time because they're done again and again – giving you pleasure, helping you avoid something disagreeable or minimizing thinking about routine tasks – like eating breakfast in the morning," Newby-Clark said. "For that reason alone, they're going to be tough to change."
Markman and Newby-Clark offered these tips to help modify your life, one habit at a time:
1. Know thyself
If you're aware you eat too much after stressful conversations, or crave cigarettes at certain points of the day, then you've got a head start at turning those hankerings around. "It's important to understand your triggers for the habit," Markman said. "You need to know what you're actually planning for."
He suggested spending two weeks generating a "habit diary," which could be a notebook or smartphone app where you record your thoughts and feelings each time you notice behaviors relating to a habit you'd like to adjust. "Don't try to change things yet, just understand what you're doing," he advised, "because you're making mindless things mindful."
2. Start small
Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, years of poor lifestyle choices can't be torn asunder all at once. Don't promise yourself you'll exercise five days a week when twice is much more realistic, Newby-Clark said, and don't pledge to wake up an hour earlier each morning when 15 minutes seems eminently more doable.
He suggested making "mini-plans" – dubbed "implementation intentions" by research psychologists – that breakdown objectives into simple, almost brainless actions. "Simply telling yourself, 'When I wake up in the morning, I will grab my gym bag,' or 'When I see the fridge, I will open it to prepare a healthy meal' makes a world of difference, and makes it much more likely you will do the behavior," Newby-Clark said.
3. Don't replace something with nothing
The hardest goals to fulfill are negative, such as eating less or quitting smoking or drinking, Markman said. That's because these efforts center on replacing something – food, tobacco or alcohol, for example – with nothing.
"Habits are part of memory – taking parts of your world and converting them into motivation to act," he said. "You can't stop your memory from working, so instead you need to reprogram it by replacing something with something else." That means eating differently rather than eating less, Markman said, or drinking club soda instead of liquor at parties. The need will still exist – just find a healthier replacement.
4. Plan to fail
Just as it's crucial to visualize success, it's also necessary to plan to fail, Markman said. Confused? It's not that you can't expect to succeed with steady effort, but you will inevitably stumble at some point in the process – and you must prepare so that won't spell the end of your efforts.
"What can go wrong?" he asked. "If you suddenly find yourself at a party with a ton of food around, what are you going to do? Eat a little in advance so you're not starving and everything doesn't leap off the buffet table and onto your plate. Whatever it is, have a plan."
5. Be kind to yourself
When slip-ups do occur, try to keep the bigger picture in mind. Too many people cheat on their diets, for example, and decide that a single mistake has doomed the entire plan – a phenomenon Markman said is known as the "what-the-hell effect" (as in, "What the hell, now that I've eaten that cupcake I may as well eat two more.")
"We've all failed at these things, so we know it's not easy," he said. "There will be times we eat too much . . . but rather than consider that to be a failure overall, we need to realize it's just one day where things didn't go the way we wanted them to. Try to learn from it, but tomorrow's another day."
Pass it on: Our resolutions to be healthier are more likely to be successful if we focus on changing our habits.