New year, new you — but only if you keep at it.
About four in 10 Americans make New Year’s resolutions each year, with things like eating healthier, getting more exercise and saving more money topping the list. Despite that, most of us fail at our resolutions, with some data suggesting that only about one in 10 achieve the results they’d hoped for.
One reason may be that we don’t keep at it for long enough to make it stick. Indeed, you’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to make something a habit — a notion that some say came from a self-help book published decades ago. But the reality is likely much longer.
Indeed, a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that, on average, it takes 66 days to make something a habit. The study followed 96 people over 12 weeks as they tried to make a health or lifestyle change, such as drinking an extra few glasses of water a day or running before dinner. The authors defined a habit as something that felt almost automatic when you did it. And, all told, participants said it took between 18 and 254 days before something became a habit, with the average being 66.
Of course, you want to be one of those people who takes far less than 254 days — and there are things that you can do to make your resolution turn into a habit faster. Here are a few:
Practice “temptation bundling.” Let’s say your resolution is to go to the gym, but you don’t love doing that; meanwhile, you do love listening to podcasts. If you only allow yourself to listen to podcasts while at the gym, you’re more likely to keep up your resolution to go to the gym, research in the journal Management Science shows. That’s called temptation bundling, and in the study, it significantly boosted participants’ compliance with their resolutions to hit the gym.
Make yourself cheat. One study found that when people aimed to do something for seven days a week — but allowed themselves a couple of days off if they couldn’t do it — they were more successful than even those who just planned to do it for just five days.
Make sure your resolutions look like this. Create doable, specific resolutions. “‘I will give up all sugar forever’ is probably not going to happen. So how about, ‘I will only have dessert on weekends’ or ‘I will replace my soda with sparkling water,’” says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.
Focus on why you’re doing it. “Stop focusing on what you don’t want (‘I hate the treadmill’) and, instead, focus on the benefits,” says Lombardo — like visualizing a better bod and a life with lower stress. That can help you remember why the goal is so important — and thus, stick with it.
Be accountable. Track your resolutions — for example, if you’re trying to lose weight, you might want to write down everything you eat — to stay the course, experts say. Another helpful hint: get a friend, spouse or someone else to do the resolution with you.
Remind yourself: You can do this. “No one goes 3 weeks without brushing their teeth (hopefully!). That is a habit that you have created and made stick. As such, you can make [almost] anything a habit,” Lombardo says.
This story was originally published in January 2019.