Every January, many of us roll up our sleeves and set out to improve our lives with New Year’s resolutions. For high school students, this could mean resolving to stop procrastinating, get more sleep, or join a new club. We all start determined and optimistic, but by this time in the month many find themselves lacking motivation and slipping back into old, established habits.
It doesn’t have to be that way. This month, we’ve collected some of the best research-proven strategies for sticking to your new resolution. Building new habits is hard, but by using evidence-based strategies you can start working with your brain instead of against it - and make your life that much easier this semester in the process!
Get SMART. SMART is a common goal-setting strategy that emerged from corporate settings in the 1980s, and it’s still a helpful way to conceptualize your goals today. It’s an acronym that stands for:
Specific. Specificity helps you keep yourself accountable. Instead of resolving to stop procrastinating, keep your goal grounded in reality by deciding, for example, to spend the first hour after you get home on Friday working on homework so you have less to rush and finish on Sunday night.
Measurable. Tracking and quantifying your progress - for example, how many more hours of sleep you’re getting each week - is a great way to stay motivated.
Attainable. Setting unreasonable goals (I’m going to start ten new clubs this semester!) is a straight path towards disappointment, which will only discourage you from trying next time. Set reasonable, but appropriately challenging goals.
Relevant. Think about what your overall goals are - less stress, better test scores, a healthier social life, etc. - and pick a resolution that will move you in the right direction. It’s easier to stay motivated to do something specific when it’s working towards a larger goal.
Time-bound. Give yourself a deadline to keep yourself focused. Deciding to run more often is one thing; signing up for a 5k on March 3rd is another!
Keep it simple. Princeton social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister has conducted numerous studies demonstrating that human willpower is a limited resource, so you’re more likely to succeed by limiting temptation rather than simply trying to resist it. If you want to spend less time on social media, for example, you can delete apps from your phone, have a friend change your passwords, and keep other sources of entertainment (books, art supplies, etc.) readily available. You’re unlikely to succeed just by deciding to change your behavior; instead, make permanent changes that make the habit you’re trying to develop more convenient than the one you’re trying to break.
Chain your habits. MIT researcher Ann M. Graybiel theorized that the human brain thinks of behaviors in chains; for instance, many people check their phones before going to sleep because the actions of getting into bed and turning on a cell phone are cognitively grouped together. You can take advantage of this by determining what strong habits you already possess and linking your new goals to them. So if you want to drink more water, for example, and you routinely get an after-dinner snack, try keeping a glass in the snack cabinet to remind you to hydrate while you’re snacking. Before long, you’ll find yourself drinking water every evening without needing to think about it.
As you work on establishing new habits this semester, the most important thing of all is to be patient. You’re not going to hit your goal every day, and that’s okay. Everyone works a little bit differently, so if you try one of the tips above and it doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it - just dust yourself off and try differently next time.