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The annoyingly simple way to make your New Year's resolutions stick, explained

Want to improve your life? The boring answer is that small, manageable changes over time really do work

As Charlie has discovered, a walk can do wonders for your mood. Image: Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

Last year, I made a New Year’s resolution to live a happier life. I followed all the phoney low-cost advice littering the internet – slept with my phone in a different room, drank gallons of water, did at-home yoga videos and made sure to get fresh air every day. And you know what? I’ve never felt better. And I’m seriously annoyed about it. 

Like me, 45% of people make a resolution to improve their mental health. I was initially apprehensive about the changes.  

“New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap for being lofty self-improvements that soon fizzle out,” Dr Daniel Glazer, a clinical psychologist, told me when I voiced my past self’s game plan. “But we don’t have to set sweeping, dramatic goals to better our wellbeing. Small, sustainable shifts wield great impact when practised with consistency over time.” 

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In my bid to live a happier life, I had unknowingly taken this advice, mostly to prove that it was all a load of rubbish. Limiting phone use, light exercise, lots of water. A month in, I found, to my surprise, I was happier than I had ever been and I was annoyed. Now, the responsibility for my happiness lay in my own hands and I had to carry on the work. 

When I moan about this to Glazer, he reassures me this annoyance is normal. “This reaction makes sense. Our lower-brain reward circuits prefer to passively soak up pleasurable stimuli rather than put forth continual effort. Adopting healthier patterns requires conscious discipline and it’s easy to resist adopting changes that seem like just another item on our to-do lists. It’s frustrating realising positive habits must become routine to sustain benefits. 

“The key is reframing the consistency,” he says. “Rather than viewing something like a regular walk as yet another imposition stealing precious free time, what if you focused on what sensations, insights, and rewards emerge in the process? Appreciating the small payoffs along the way eases the adaptation.” 

I’m not alone with my annoyance. Every year, social media is flushed with people complaining about their new life’s benefits, often tweeting something along the lines of ‘I’m sorry to say they were right, doing [insert cliché activity here] regularly does make you feel better’.  

The reason for this irritation is obvious when you look at the demographic of those complaining. It’s Gen Z and Millennials, the generations who were promised happiness would come easy if we just purchased the right stuff: self-help books, overpriced vitamins, entertainment subscriptions, new clothes. We were taught to feel good at the click of a button and, as Glazer pointed out, our brains are now used to that instant spark of joy. So how can we not all feel a bit peeved upon finding out you can’t actually buy happiness from someone/somewhere/something? You have to take small steps, every day, to actively try and be happy. Ugh. 

According to Glazer, these small, non-commercial resolutions work so well because of the personal intention and repetition behind them. Regular and small steps, he said, in the end will carry you further than large but disjointed jumps. “Small, doable steps that fit seamlessly into existing routines transform our worlds exponentially when done with intention. There really is power in how tiny tweaks cultivate big change.” 

So what resolutions does he recommend? The biggest and most effective change is to take up gratitude journaling. It sounds impossibly cliché, but can help to rewire your brain to focus less on perceived negatives.  

“Keep paper and pens by your bedside, and after turning off your alarm, jot down three things you feel genuinely grateful for,” he advises. “They can be relatively mundane: a good night’s sleep, your cat snuggling at your feet, the cosiness of blankets. This grounds us in abundance and research shows consistently cultivating gratitude rewires the brain over time to focus less on perceived lacks.” 

If that doesn’t float your boat, Glazer recommends trying to tidy up your space. “Another easily integrated practice is tidying for just 10 minutes per day. Set a timer and put things back in their homes, file stacks of paper, fold laundry. It keeps chaos at bay without marathon cleaning sessions so you can enjoy free time. And coming home to orderly surroundings eases mental fatigue.” 

I felt unbearably silly trying out his recommendations and I almost embarrassed to report they work. It just seems too simple that I had more ‘pep in my step’ after spending a couple minutes making my bed and scribbling in my notebook that ‘I had a good dream’, but I did. 

Here’s how my days look now. I wake up at the same(ish) time every day to tell my notebook it’s not raining, that I’m thankful to be warm and healthy. I refresh my space, haphazardly struggle through 20-or-so minutes of sun-salutations and pigeon poses, and then trudge around the block, or visit the park if I’m in the mood, to smile at every single dog I see on the way.  

And I feel better for it. After all, for something to become an overused cliché, doesn’t it have to have some substance keeping it alive? 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme. 

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