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The Psychology of New Habits

January 1st, 2021 is the start of the 4th year in a row where I’ve run at least once every single week. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for my health but it didn’t start this way.

I got back into running ~4 years ago and after a while proudly asked my romantic partner how many times she thought I ran that year. She guessed 100 times (almost 1 out of 3 days!) I thought that was a little high so I checked my FitBit data and realized I only ran 26 times. 

*sad trombone noise*

Sure, I ran a lot in June preparing for a 10K. But I never really created a habit. I just ran when I wanted and didn’t formalize the practice. And I didn’t realize how many weeks and entire months I went without running. I thought I was running a lot but when I actually measured it was less than I wanted.

Noticing Room for Improvement

All of us want to start new habits – especially around this time of year. And before you can even conceptualize something you want to change, you have to be aware of where you’re falling short of your goals.

December is the perfect time to take stock:

  • How often do you exercise?
  • How much sleep do you get?
  • What time do you wake up?
  • Do you meditate?
  • How has your weight changed?
  • How much do you drive?
  • How much time are you spending in front of screens?

And many of these things can be measured. Exercise & sleep can be monitored by Fitbit. Screentime reports are now built into many operating systems (most Apple products will show you a weekly screentime report) and you can use 3rd party apps like RescueTime to track even more detailed results.

Starting a Habit

Once you have some sort of habit you’d like to improve, the next step is to dial in on exactly what you want to do. Maybe it’s run once a week, maybe it’s to eat an apple at lunch, maybe it’s to write in your gratitude journal every night. Whatever you want to do, the next bit is key this time of year: decide when you want to start.

Here’s where I have some new information you probably haven’t heard before. In the episode “A New Hope” on The Happiness Lab, which is a fantastic podcast you should definitely listen to, Dr. Laurie Santos describes an experiment where one group of people are asked to start a new habit on the first day of Spring. Researchers then instruct a second group to start the habit on the 3rd Thursday in March which happens to be the first day of spring. But the researchers never tell the group that and for most people, it’s just another day.

The results are pretty impressive. The group that started on the first day of spring had 3 times the number of people who wanted reminders to help their outcome. 

This is called the fresh start effect. 

Now, this is just one study, but one of the things I take away from this is that humans like new beginnings, we like new chapters, and we like symbolism. If we start a habit on The New Year instead of Just Some Day, we’ll be more likely to follow through on our habits.

This January 1st will also mark the first year where I’ve completely given up soda. I wanted to do something for my health, so I decided to limit a bad habit and learn to enjoy water & tea more. And despite the crazy year, I’ve stuck with it. I encourage you to think in symbols, chapters, and new beginnings. It will help you follow through in whatever habits you’re looking to achieve.

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