It’s that time of year again….the time where everyone writes New Year’s Resolutions. Whether you’re trying to drop 20 lbs, start a new hobby or venture into a new career, many look to a new year to start new goals.

But like so many of us, come Valentine’s Day, those same resolutions are out the window– okay, more like by January 2 for me! But why are resolutions so had to keep, and why do we keep on trying?

On the other hand, we all know those few unicorn-like people who can actually stick to their New Year’s resolutions. Like rockstars they seem to be able to tackle anything they put their minds to. So what’s wrong with us? Or better yet, what’s wrong with them? And are those unicorn-rockstar-resolution-keepers born that way or can we learn something from them?

Last year, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I decided to research how to actually keep them. What I discovered was very simple. The secret to keeping your New Year’s resolutions is to establish habits until they become routine and don’t require any willpower at all. These small habits can build upon each other until bigger goals are reached. Is it really that simple? I put it to the test and this is what I learned.

How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions
Without Any Willpower

1. You can do anything, but just not at all once
You get up every morning, make breakfast, brush your teeth, take a shower, and leave for work. It’s your morning routine. But before you brush your pearly whites every morning, do you consider the pros and cons about dental health? Is it a hard decision deciding whether or not to brush your teeth? Not likely. Instead, without even thinking about it, you squeeze the tube of Aquafresh and stream a glob of blue toothpaste onto your battery-powered brush before you’ve even realized what you’ve done. That’s because brushing your teeth is a habit. Habits don’t require much though, much less willpower.

In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. Duhigg’s theory is that in order to be successful with goals, you need to turn them into habits. He says that while it can be hard to start a habit at first, once you’ve done it for a while, it becomes automatic. The key to habits, though, is trying to add only one at a time.

I decided to put Duhigg’s theory to the test. I am not what they call a “clean freak.” In fact, I am the exact opposite. It’s not like I’m a hoarder or anything — ooh, 50 plastic oatmeal lids…yes please!– but I am lacking in the neat-and-tidy department. So I decided to start with a habit that probably most people have already mastered — the art of making your bed each day. For the first week, I struggled. I struggled to remember to do it, and then like a 12-year-old I whined that I didn’t want to do it and that it wasn’t necessary, but I persevered. I summoned my limited willpower and made it through. One week. Two weeks, and by the end of the month, I didn’t even think about it anymore. It was no longer a struggle. I got up, made my bed and kept going. It had become a habit. Whether it takes you two days or two months, it’s not about time-frame, but about getting to where you no longer need willpower.

Duhigg’s research suggest you shouldn’t try to change your whole life in one big swoop, but rather focus on making small changes until they are habits. Then one day, you look around and you’ve accomplished larger goals and changed your life.

2. Your personality helps decide how you are motivated
So if all you have to do is work on establishing one habit at a time, is there more left to say? Isn’t making new habits and goals easy? Well, yes and no. If we were all the same, it would be easy, but our personalities are different and those differences define how we start habits and are motivated to accomplish goals.

Case in point, I have two children, both boys, both with the same parents, but they have totally different personalities. One is a self-starter, does what he is told without questioning and easily accomplishes goals. The other child questions everything. He needs solid research and reasoning before he decides to do anything.

Just like my children are different, we all have different personalities. In Gretchen Rubin’s books Better Than Before and The Four Tendencies, she categorizes people into four personalities or tendencies based on what motivates them into action. These four tendencies include: the Upholder, the Obliger, the Questioner and the Rebel. Each personality type is motivated into action by different things. Rubin argues that if we can identify our tendency then we can unlock our own motivation. Here is a breakdown of the tendencies:

The Upholder – is motivated by internal self to accomplish goals.

The Obliger – is motivated by outside circumstances to accomplish goals aka not letting people down.

The Questioner – is motivated by data and research to accomplish goals.

The Rebel – is motivated by creating her own path to accomplish goals.

So if we go back to our making-your-bed example, this is how to motivate each tendency.

The Upholder – Because this tendency is internally motivated, she is usually good at setting and accomplishing goals. She wants to please herself. This tendency likes to check off to-do lists and feel accomplished, so writing down her goal and checking it off each day should help.

The Obliger – Because this tendency is motivated by outside circumstances to accomplish goals, she needs outward accountability. In order to motivate herself to make her bed each morning, she needs to be accountable to other people.

The Questioner – Because this tendency is motivated by data and research to accomplish goals, she needs to research why making your bed daily is important. When she feels like she has proof that it’s important to do something, she will be motivated to do it.

The Rebel – Because this tendency is motivated by creating her own path to accomplish goals, she needs to figure out how she can decide to do it on her own and in her own way. A simple tactic, which may seem silly, is for her to say to herself, “Other people think I am messy, but I’ll show them. I can make my bed every day.”

Knowing your tendency will help you better know how to motivate yourself to start a new habit. Once you’re motivated, it’s easier to turn that task into a habit and accomplish your goals.

3. Habits are like puzzles — they have pieces
Establishing a habit can be simple, but let’s dive a little bit deeper into the different parts of a habit. These include the trigger, the action and the reward. By knowing the parts of the habit, you can more easily help an action become a habit.

The Trigger – The trigger is the thing that helps you start the habit. It’s the thing that signals or triggers your memory to do the action.

The Action – The action is the thing you want to accomplish.

The Reward – The reward is a positive effect that happens as a result of the action.

So in our making-the-bed example, here are the different parts of the habit.

The Trigger – The trigger for me was getting up out of bed. As soon as I pulled off the covers to get up, triggered my memory that it was now time to make my bed.

The Action – The action was making my bed.

The Reward – The reward was my bedroom looking cleaner. Since the bed takes up a majority of the bedroom, when it is made, the bedroom itself looks clean and helps me feel peaceful and accomplished.

Here’s another example of how knowing the pieces of the puzzle helps us better establish habits. Recently we noticed that our family could do a better job washing our hands. Knowing that one child is an upholder and the other a questioner, I used the right methods to appeal to their motivation. I explained that washing their hands more frequently was a new habit I wanted our kids to gain (upholder) and that by washing our hands more frequently we could prevent getting as many colds this winter (questioner). The triggers for this habit were “after using the restroom” and “before eating meals.” The action was for them to “wash their hands,” and the reward would be that “they wouldn’t get as sick this winter.” About this same time, there was a sale at Bath and Body Works. I bought the most delicious-smelling foaming soap called pumpkin cupcake. I put it in the main floor bathroom so everyone could enjoy the special soap. In a couple of weeks, I noticed the soap was nearly gone. We sat the kids down and asked them how their habit of washing their hands was going. Both said things were going well and I explained how we had gone through a bottle of soap in record time. Both then said that they loved the smell of the soap. Ah ha! An immediate reward. The boys may have remembered the fact that washing their hands would help them not get sick, but instantly after washing, they were rewarded with a nice smell. This example shows that the higher the reward, the more quickly the habit can be created.

By dissecting a habit and knowing its parts, you can customize a habit plan that will help you or your loved ones form good habits.

4. Track your progress 
Tracking progress is key to seeing what you have accomplished….or not accomplished. When I thought about what new habits I have added this past year, I didn’t think I had accomplished much. As I was writing them down, though, I realized I had accomplished quite a bit. This year I had added more than 20 new habits from making my bed every weekday, to flossing on weekdays and emptying the dishwasher each morning. Simply tracking your habits can help you feel more accomplished. On the other hand, I noticed that I needed to review my habits more regularly. While I did gain several new habits this year, there were a few that I had forgotten to work on. Tracking your progress will show you just how far you’ve come, or where you need to push yourself a little harder, until a habit forms, of course.

That brings me to my last point…

5. By small and simple things are great things brought to pass. 
As I was looking over the small habits I had created this past year, I realized that I hadn’t yet completely changed my life yet. (Was I thinking life would magically become perfect?!) What I did notice, though, was that I was making steps in the right direction. I was making progress towards my goals.

One of the habits I cultivated last year was emptying the dishwasher every morning. At first, though, this habit was too overwhelming for me  — yes, I know that sounds pathetic, but that was my truth. That’s when I decided to break “emptying the dishwasher” down to even smaller steps. I told myself, when I first came downstairs to the kitchen each morning, I would just open the dishwasher and take out the clean silverware caddy and put it on the counter. It was a simple step, but it got me going. In less than a week, I found myself saying, “Well, I’ll just empty the bottom rack too,” and then once that was done, I went ahead and emptied the top rack as well. Within a couple of weeks, I didn’t even think about it anymore. When I came downstairs in the morning (trigger) I emptied the dishwasher (action) and then I always had clean dishes all day long (reward.) A habit had been created.

This year, as I was writing down new habits, I realized what I really wanted was to have a clean house. That’s when it donned on me that I needed to break down that goal into little habits. Just like I broke down the goal of emptying the dishwasher into little habits, I could break down having a clean house into smaller habits.


In the picture above, you can see how I started with the habit of cleaning out the dishwasher. Once that goal was mastered, I added “Run the Dishwasher Nightly.” And now that that habit has been formed, for this year, I am adding a habit to fill the dishwasher as soon as I use a dish. This is just one example of how you can break a large goal into little habits. Soon your small and simple things will help bring great things to pass. I know that these new habits worked because I started off small. If I had tried to be a dishwasher rockstar from the very beginning — unloading, running it nightly and loading it immediately — I think it would have been too much, and I would have failed. Adding one small habit at a time has helped me fulfill larger goals.

So now that you know how developing small habits can help you accomplish bigger goals, sky’s the limit. Remember the five key to accomplishing your goals and keeping those New Year’s resolutions:

1. You can do anything, but just not at all once

2. Your personality helps decide how you are motivated

3. Habits are like puzzles — they have pieces

4. Track your progress 

5. By small and simple things are great things brought to pass. 

To better help you form new habits, and thus meet your goals, download our Habits Tracker. You can print it out and write out your habits for the new year or upload it to Google Drive and keep track of your goals on your computer. You may also like our To-Do List we’ve created to help keep you organized and prioritized.

– Lori