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Building Better Habits in the New Year

By Gary F. Zeolla


      As we near the end of this year and are looking forward to the New Year, many people will make New Year’s resolutions. But most of those resolutions will be broken by February. In this article, I will look at a few news articles about forming new habits and what advice they give to help you keep those New Year’s resolutions.


CNN. How to build a habit in 5 steps, according to science.


      People with good habits rarely need to resist the temptation to laze on the couch, order greasy takeout, procrastinate on assignments or watch one more viral video before dashing out the door. That’s because autopilot takes over, eliminating temptation from the equation. Having established good habits, little to no willpower is required to choose wisely….

      Here are a few research-backed steps sourced from my book, “How to Change,” that can set you on the path from where you are to where you want to be.


1.       Set a specific goal…

2.       Create a detailed, cue-based plan…

3.       Make it fun to repeat…

4.       Foster flexibility…

5.       Find the right kind of social support


      CNN gives its own comments on each point in the linked to article. I would encourage the reader to read them. But here, I will give my own take on them.

      Building a new habit is not about will-power. It is about making a choice to change, making a plan, and including in that plan flexibility, knowing things will never go exactly as planned.

      Also, just having a general goal like, “I want to lose weight” or “I want to go to the gym regularly” is not enough. A specific goal of say losing 50 pounds or going to the gym three times a week enables a plan to be made.

      That longer term goal then can be broken down into smaller goals, like losing a pound a week. That would have you losing those 50 pounds over the course of the New Year. Then the detailed plan would be to establish a caloric deficit of just 500 calories a day. Over a week, that deficit will give you that one pound weight loss. That caloric deficit can be in the form of a combination of reduced intake and/ or increased expenditure.

      That takes us back to going to the gym regularly. Just 30 minutes a day, three days a week would help with increased expenditure. As your habit builds, that can be increased to 60 minutes and up to six days a week. But the key is for it to be gradual increase, rather than trying to make a radical change all at once.

      The make it fun part means choosing an activity you enjoy, or a diet plan that fits with your lifestyle. If you are a pasta lover, you would never adhere long term to a low carb diet. And if love the outdoors, then working out inside might not be the best choice. Try an outdoor activity, like walking, hiking, running, or cycling. But then, if you are a “people-person” those solitary activities might not be the best choice either. Try taking up a team sport or at least one with a partner, like tennis or basketball.

      The flexibility part means to be prepared for something to go wrong that keeps you from your planned workout, or keeps you from being able to eat as planned. As the saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If you cannot prepare your own meal as planned but are forced to eat out, then make the best choice you can given the menu, enjoy it, then move on.

      If you miss a workout, it’s no big deal. Don’t have a defeatist attitude that since you missed one workout all is lost. Just make an extra effort to not miss your next one, and don’t overdo it in it an effort to make up for the missed workout. Just follow your plan as previously laid out.

      Finally, as already stated, if you are a people-person, then working out alone is not the best idea. At the very least, join an online exercise group where you keep each other accountable. Knowing you will be posting about your workouts will be an encouragement for you to actually do them.

      When I first started working out alone in my newly established home gym, I posted my workouts on the website and on weightlifting/ powerlifting discussion boards. Then later I posted videos of my workouts. That was an encouragement to not only keep doing them but to try to do as well as possible in them, knowing others would be reading or viewing my workouts. I no longer do so, as working out is a well-established habit for me. But if you are a newbie to working out, you might consider such a practice.


PNAS. What can machine learning teach us about habit formation?

Evidence from exercise and hygiene


      Contrary to the popular belief in a “magic number” of days to develop a habit, we find that it typically takes months to form the habit of going to the gym but weeks to develop the habit of handwashing in the hospital.


      It is often said it takes 21 days to establish a new habit. But this study found that was not the case. It actually takes much longer. But most of all, it depends on what habit it is that is trying to be established.

      For instance, we were all taught about proper handwashing during the pandemic. And that is one aspect of pandemic recommendations that has stuck with me. I used to be rather quick about hand-washing, but it did not take too long for it to become a habit for me to be more scrupulous about it. And now that is just how I wash my hands.

      However, that is a simple habit change. More major changes, like going to the gym or working out at home regularly, take longer. Again, for me, it is now an established habit. But if you are just starting out, recognize that it will take time for it to become a habit. That again is why having a community to keep you accountable can be helpful.


NIH. Goal setting and achievement for walking: A series of N-of-1 digital interventions.


      While more difficult performance goals might trigger higher physical activity levels, higher performance goals might concurrently be more difficult to achieve, which could reduce long-term motivation….

      The results confirm that, for a majority of the participants involved in the study, performance goal difficulty was positively and significantly associated with physical activity (n = 14), but, concurrently, negatively and significantly associated with goal achievement (n = 19).


New York Times. Set Your Exercise Goals High, but Not Too High.


      Want to exercise more this year? Then adopt workout goals that are challenging but not too challenging, tough but doable, individualized but evolving. Or maybe just plan to walk at least an extra 500 steps most days.

      Those are the broad conclusions of a timely new study of goal setting and exercise. It finds that inactive people start moving more if they receive daily step targets on their phone that exceed their usual number of steps — but only up to a point. If the exercise goals become too daunting, people typically start failing to meet them, denting motivation.

      So, the best exercise goals are those that remain just a little out of reach, the study suggests. The issue is discovering what that idea means, in practice, for you.


      The New York Times article is about the preceding quoted study. What they are saying is, it is advantageous to set goals as a motivation to exercise more. The higher the initial goal, the more it will encourage increased activity. However, if the goal is too high, out of your reach, you probably won’t reach it, get discouraged, and give up altogether.

      The point is, be reasonable about what you are capable of doing, given your current state of health and conditioning, and also given your schedule. You might read somewhere that working out for an hour six days a week is the ideal. However, if your schedule simply does not allow for that amount of time to be spent exercising, you might do it for a week or two, but life will take over, you’ll miss workouts, get frustrated, and give up altogether.

      It would be much better to be reasonable about how much time you can devote to working out. If all you have is 30 minutes three times a week, then fine, do that. Once that becomes an established habit, then maybe you can work in a bit more over time and eventually get closer to that initial goal.

      The same goes if you are just too out of shape to work out for 60 minutes six days a week. Trying to do so could lead to you feeling overly sore or even getting injured. That could then lead to you giving up altogether.

      It would be much better to start with a small goal, like just a walk around the block three times a week, then to gradually adjust your goal upward as your conditioning improves. For more in this regard, see my two-part article Training Routine for the Totally Out of Shape.


Muscle and Strength. 7 Habits of Highly Successful & Motivated Gym-Goers.


… habits are a powerful thing.

      Once you’ve established a habit, it is nearly impossible to give it up. They become mini-traditions that occur on a daily basis, and eventually a large part of our routine-driven lives.

      So, you better make sure the habits you set for yourself align with your goals.

      Take these 7 habits with you into the New Year and you’ll remain/become a highly motivated and successful gym-goer.


1.       They Set Clear Goals…

2.       They Make Small, Sustainable Changes at a Time…

3.       They Have Fun with Their Workouts…

4.       They Have Perspective…

5.       They Have a Bedtime Routine…

6.       They Prioritize What Really Matters…

7.       They Practice Patience.


      Again, Muscle and Strength gives its own comments on each of these points, but here, I will give my own.

      One point one, M&S’s main point is to set just one specific goal, not a litany of different goals. That goes back to wanting a challenging goal but not too challenging. Setting a multitude of goals might sound motivation inspiring, but it can get depressing when you do not meet all of those goals. Having just one goal can enable you to focus on it, and you just might hit those other goals anyways as you do so.

      The second point has been touched on previously, but it bears repeating. Trying to change too many things all at once can be overwhelming. Yes, both diet and exercise are important to good health and weight loss, as are proper sleep and stress control. But trying to work on all four at once could be too much.

      Pick the one that you think you can most easily attain. Hit that goal. That will then give you motivation to work on the next hardest, then the next hardest. And again, make each goal challenging but attainable.

      Point 3 is what I said before. Pick an activity that fits with your personality and likes. Forcing yourself to go to the gym when you find it intolerably boring will not last long. But with the myriad of possible exercise modalities available, you can surely find something enjoyable to you.

      Having perspective means realizing a missed workout is not the end of the world, neither is eating something you have made a goal of not eating. Maybe you need to reevaluate your goal and recognize it is not attainable for you, at least at this time. Again, smaller attainable goals are better long term than a massive goal all at once.

      I’ve mostly mentioned diet and exercise in this article, but sleep trumps both of them. If you are meticulous about your diet and work out regularly, but you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you still will not feel good.

      In fact, a lack of sleep can sabotage both of them. If you are tired, you are more likely to crave high-sugar, high fat foods and to give into temptation, and you are more likely to skip a workout. And even if you do work out, you won’t recover as well, which can lead to being overly sore or even getting injured. That will then further hinder you reaching your goals.

      Prioritizing what really matters includes realizing that although healthy habits are important, so is making a living, spending time with family and friends, serving others, and your relationship with God. Do not make exercise and diet the be all and end all of your life.

      Finally, patience in forming any new habit and in making progress is vital. As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in day.” And  you are not going to undo a lifetime of bad habits in a few weeks. As already stated, it takes time to form new habits, longer than most think.

      As such, be in it for the long haul. Changing to new habits is a marathon, not a sprint. So is making progress in the gym or any new activity. Just remember consistency is the key.

      Unless you are a professional athlete training for a specific competition that you must enter at a specific time, it matters little how long it takes you to reach your goals. If it takes longer than expected, no matter. You will get there eventually, if you are consistent about it. Small advances will add up over time.


APA PsycNet. More than resisting temptation.


      Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes….

      We propose that one of the reasons individuals with better self-control use less effortful inhibition, yet make better progress on their goals is that they rely on beneficial habits….

      Collectively, these results suggest that beneficial habits—perhaps more so than effortful inhibition—are an important factor linking self-control with positive life outcomes.


      This final study brings together and is the result of all that precedes. Once you establish new healthy habits, they become second-nature, are easy to keep, and they enable you to forge new habits more easily. That all leads to a healthier and happier life.

      My prayer for the reader that the New Year brings such to you.


Building Better Habits in the New Year. Copyright 2023 By Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this website December 1, 2023.

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