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8 ways to build habits and stick to resolutions

If you are already thinking of your New Year resolutions, habit coach Ashdin Doctor has eight pointers that can help you in your pursuit

Small incremental changes work better than grand resolutions while trying to break old habits.(Unsplash/Jenny Hill)

By Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran

LAST PUBLISHED 05.12.2023  |  08:50 AM IST

We are barely a month away from ringing in a new year, synonymous with resolutions to bring positive changes to our lives. While it is true that it’s never too late to start a new habit or routine, most of our resolutions fall by the wayside within a month. In her book, Good Habits, Bad Habits, Wendy Wood, a social psychologist at the University of Southern California, attributes this to the fact that more than motivation, our unconscious habits dictate our behaviour.

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Once you know that, it’s easier to understand that small incremental changes work better than grand resolutions while trying to break old habits. Relying on willpower alone isn’t enough to change something about ourselves. While determination and intent are admirable, both are likely to fail you at some point. Keeping it simple is the way to effect positive change.

Popular habit coach Ashdin Doctor recommends creating tiny habits that you can follow over making grand resolutions. Once these small new steps become new habits, you’ll find it easier to push further and hold to bigger resolutions. In this interview with Mint, Mumbai-based Doctor who has authored the books, Change Your Habits Change Your Life, and One Habit a Day, lays down eight simple adages to keep in mind that can help you stick to your resolutions. 

#1 Your morning starts the night before
It’s a general belief that your entire day depends on what happens in the first few hours of the day from the time you wake up. I think that belief needs a bit of a rethink: Your morning actually starts the night before. But since most of us unaware of this, we end up ruining our nights—be it by binge watching shows or mindless scrolling on social media, and then we automatically expect the morning to be good. That rarely happens. When it comes to a good start to the day, you need to remember that it’s not just about what you do, it’s also about what you are thinking. So, if you wake up in the morning and your first thought is, “Oh god, life sucks!" well, that is what your day is going to be like.

#2 Thoughts are habits too
Most of us have been brought up thinking that habits are physical activities that you do—whether it is making your bed, exercising, following a balanced diet or sleeping early. What people rarely tell you is that your thoughts are habits too. ‘I am not good enough’ for instance is a mental habit that plays in our minds and spills out into our lives all the time. Another limiting mental habit is thinking ‘I don’t have enough money’. 

Our financial mindset is framed from thoughts we were fed while growing up that ‘money doesn’t grow on trees, so you have to save constantly.’ That it all starts with your mindset is a thought that could bear reiteration. It is amazing how everything works out if you are not in the mindset of a struggle. The problem is we think of everything as a struggle.

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#3 Create tiny habits that you can follow easily
When it comes to daily routines, most people continue to stay in their comfort zones because they believe that they don’t have the discipline or the motivation to change. And when we do try, we tend to give up after a while. And that is solely because when we do try to incorporate new habits, we tend to go extreme. For instance, in order to lose weight, we decide to follow an extreme diet or go for hour or hour-and-a-half-long exercise regimes. The problem with this attitude is that it can get difficult to keep the momentum going after a few days. Instead of going big, it’s far more effective to create tiny habits that you can follow every day. For instance, instead of trying out a drastic diet, you could probably start with intermittent fasting. Or instead of pumping up weights outright, you could start with four-minute Tabata exercises. Once you gain consistency in these new habits, you’ll find it easier to push further.

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#4 Don’t think of habits as good or bad
Growing up, we were told of habits that are good and habits that are bad. Instead, it’s far more liberating to look at habits as those that serve you and those that don’t serve you. Labelling something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ holds judgement in it. Instead, look at a habit and see if it’s helping you to take your life in the direction you want or if it’s taking you away from it.

#5 You inherit habits
Every moment of your day, there’s a habit that’s taking place. If you are talking to someone on the phone and walking at the same time, that’s a habit being practiced. What’s to be noted is that while some are conscious habits, a lot more of them are unconscious habits. This stems from the fact that along with our genes, we also inherit habits from our parents. So, if everyone in your family has a sweet tooth, you are also going to habitually consume sweets more. If nobody in your family runs, you are not going to make running a natural habit. But in families that exercise, you will see a big difference in how the next generation thinks about exercising. 

#6 Have a list of habits you will never compromise on
There are three habits that I never compromise on. One is my daily gratitude practice where I write things I am truly thankful for in my life. I find myself feeling more tired or lethargic on days that I don’t move, so I ensure I get some form of physical movement every day. And a third habit is ensuring that one meal that I have in the day is controlled by me. From a habit coach’s point of view, these core habits that you don’t compromise on are called keystone habits. Whether it’s meditation or working out everyday, having keystone habits is important because they allow you to be in control of daily aspects of your life.

#7 Practice a habit of gratitude
Today, most of us are living with the constant worry of ‘What’s going to happen tomorrow?’ There are very few of us who are looking at our lives feeling thankful for everything that’s working right for us. This is precisely why gratitude practice is a powerful habit to inculcate. When you are in a state of gratitude, you can’t simultaneously be in a state of fear. Having a habit of gratitude helps you find moments in your day that you can be thankful for.

#8 Do not be in a hurry to form a habit
You’d have come across a statement that it takes you 21 days to form a habit. That claim is completely false. The origins of that idea came from a book called Psycho-Cybernetics authored by a plastic surgeon (Dr. Maxwell Maltz). He’d written about how it takes 21 days for an amputee to get over their phantom leg syndrome and get used to the fact that they’ve lost a limb. However, that is not something you need to worry about when inculcating a new practice. My advice? Do not be in a hurry to form a habit. For instance, if you want to make a habit of reading books, start off by reading one page. That one page will increase to two-three pages until reading becomes a part of your routine. Instead of giving yourself a timeline, give yourself time to nurture a new ritual.

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