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New Year, but Same Me: 5 Realistic Tips for Building Habits

We’re more than halfway through January, and do you feel like a new person yet? With the start of a new year comes the pressure of New Year resolutions and “new year, new me!” sentiments. Just like kids on Christmas anxiously awaiting presents, adults wishfully believe that when they finally find their “new self,” they’ll be happy with who they are.

Though I’m all for self-improvement and positive change, this all-or-nothing mindset actually sets us up for failure. We wait for one moment in time to change our lives for the better. We want to pull up in the drive-through of the Good Habits franchise, pick our favorite habits off the menu and drive off a new person in under ten minutes. 

But the reality is that life doesn’t work like this. James Clear, the author of the popular Atomic Habits, wrote a short (and free!) guide to creating the life you want — not by waiting around for a bolt of good luck but by building life-long habits. I want to share some of my favorite points from the book that are helping me form better habits this year! 

Plan a journey, not a destination

We’re obsessed with results, especially in American culture. But focusing on the destination alone will never move us towards our goals, and in Clear’s words, “…[we] forget to realize that our process for achieving goals is just as important as whether or not [we] achieve them at all.”

Create an identity, not a performance

New Year’s resolutions aren’t about deadlifting 80 lbs or earning a six-figure income; they’re about figuring out what kind of person you want to be. When you set those goals, what you really wanted was to become someone who takes care of their body or a knowledgeable and experienced professional. Performative goals are dependent on other people watching, but your identity will stay with you even when no one’s around.

Willpower is sometimes “won’t power.”

James Clear repeatedly says that willpower is the wrong way to think about habits. We believe that with enough grit, we can power through anything. However, willpower is like a muscle that depletes with excessive use. There are many psychology studies in which participants who were asked to exert willpower give up sooner on tasks that required self-control. Your motivation varies from moment to moment, day to day, and can’t be relied upon to sustain you. 

Use the science of habit formation

Instead of relying on willpower, use the science of habit formation. Every habit follows a sequence of events: reminder, routine, reward. Maybe your habit is to make coffee every morning. Your reminder is waking up; your routine is preparing the coffee; the reward is getting a caffeinated beverage. You can use this skeleton for habits to build new ones. For example, if you already make coffee daily and want to start meditating, you could use your morning coffee as the “reminder” to meditate for ten minutes. 

My favorite recommendation from Clear is to make two lists: one, a list of habits you already do; and two, of things that happen to you every day (even simple things like an ad coming on the radio). Anything that happens on a daily basis can become a reminder of your new habit.

Consistency is more important than perfection

Things like 30-day challenges put pressure on us to get our habit every single day. But, in the long term, it’s much more important to build a sustainable practice. I like one of Clear’s examples: if you run out of time for your full workout, do exercises for a few minutes instead. You maintain your habit and prevent one missed day from snowballing into months of not working out.

Changing your life shouldn’t be dependent upon suddenly waking up one day as a “new person.” Principles shared by authors like James Clear make it clear to us (pun intended) that small changes yield great results. You don’t need to be a new you this year — you can be the same you, plus some new habits that move you toward your goals and dreams.

I'm a 3rd-year UCF student majoring in communication sciences and disorders and minoring in psychology, aging studies, and linguistics. I volunteer at UCF Aphasia House and work at the Aphasia and Related Conditions (ARC) Research Lab, and I hope to become a speech-language pathologist someday! In my spare time, I enjoy learning about organization, productivity, and planning tools. I also love playing the piano, exploring local coffee shops, scribbling down scraps of poetry, and watching my favorite Netflix series.
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