Habits Are the New Resolutions

The secret to actually following through on 2021 goals

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
4 min readJan 5, 2021

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Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

Happy New Year!

Did you set any goals or intentions for 2021 yet? Me neither. I have to confess, though, I’ve never been very good at keeping New Year’s resolutions. I’ve tried to learn how to play the guitar at least a half-dozen times with no real success, and any attempts over the years to cut out sugar have been short-lived. But I also haven’t really been trying that hard — I’ve never used what I know about the brain to try to turn a resolution into a habit.

Habits are like shortcuts for your brain, and they can work either to your benefit or your detriment. Habits allow you to function on autopilot so you can perform tasks while thinking about something more important. Usually, this is a good thing. You don’t have to concentrate on your order of operations in the shower, setting your mind free to wander, plan your day, or problem-solve. Automatically putting your seat belt on when you get into a car means you never forget to buckle up, even when you’re thinking about something else.

At its most basic, a habit is the pairing of a stimulus and a response. We develop habits by performing the same action again and again in the same environment. The setting part is important: Your brain relies on external cues to predict and perform its next action. You finish dinner; you eat a piece of chocolate. You unlock your phone; you go to the Twitter app.

One of the best ways to develop a new habit is to tie it to an existing one. You likely have a habit of grabbing your phone, wallet, and keys when you walk out the door. Hopefully, if you keep your face mask right next to your keys, you now automatically grab that too. If you want to get into the habit of eating more fruits and vegetables, try adding an apple (a new habit) to your lunch (an existing habit) every day.

Many habits are behaviors that are not only repeated but also rewarded. Normally when you make a decision, you…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental