Remember a few months back, when you made a New Year’s resolution? Maybe it was to eat less sugar, exercise more, or keep the kitchen tidier. If your resolution went by the wayside, don't feel bad about it: U.S. News and World Report estimates that 80% of Americans fail to fulfill their New Year’s resolutions. Keep reading to understand how habit science explains that high failure rate, and how spring is a better time to create new habit goals.
Has this ever happened to you? You go to the movies with someone and offer to buy them popcorn. Your friend declines, saying they don’t want any, but after the first trailer, that person has eaten half your popcorn! (BTW, I’m typically that person in this story … sorry.) Or you go to the grocery store for milk and eggs, but end up walking every aisle and buying a full load of groceries. There’s a story in habit researcher Jeremy Dean's book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits, about an Englishman in the 1800s who went to his bedroom to dress for a formal dinner, and instead went to bed. What’s happening here?
Context is a super important part of our habits. Our brains are wired to recognize a situation and automatically act accordingly. I steal my friend’s popcorn because my brain says that when I'm at the movies and popcorn is in front of me, I should eat popcorn. When you go to the grocery store, you’re used to walking up and down all the aisles and filing the cart. The English gentleman saw his bed and automatically got into it.
The scientific research shows that not only does context drive habits, but changes to our environments can trigger habit change. In England, researchers surveyed university employees who had recently moved to new homes and employees who hadn’t. Researchers asked these employees to consider the environmental impact of their commutes and switch to greener modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, carpooling, or public transport. The researchers found that employees who had recently moved (a big change in context) were more likely to switch away from personal vehicles to more environmentally friendly transport.
Given how powerfully context can trigger our habits, it’s understandable why changing the environments and triggers around us is a first step to adopting new habits. But think about your environment at New Year's. For many of us, the weather was cold, so we probably weren’t venturing outdoors. The sun went down early, so we used TV to entertain ourselves after dinner. And given the nature of holiday time, we weren’t making life changes like moving or taking a new job. Since our context didn’t change between December 31 to January 1, our habits didn’t either, and that New Year’s resolution became so much harder to practice.
Spring is a huge environment change for many people. Our daily lives change to accommodate the warmer temperatures and longer days. Based on highly unscientific research, my dog will tell you that his walks are getting longer because his owner isn’t in a rush to get back to a warm apartment. Or maybe your child plays a spring sport. Driving that kid to practice and games introduces a whole new commute schedule into your life. It’s these changes you can embrace to introduce the new habits you desire in your life.
So rewrite that New Year’s resolution into a spring resolution. Here's how springtime can assist with some of the most common habit changes:
It can be frustrating to look back three months and realize that your New Year’s resolution wasn’t successful. But you will be more successful if you give it a spring reboot. Use the changes in weather, daylight, and your schedule to rearrange your daily life and claim success for that new habit in 2021.