New Habits: How to get started

I love New Year’s Resolutions! I love the feeling of a fresh start, an opportunity to set a 365-day goal to help me shine more brightly into the person I want to be and live into the life I want to have. We set all kinds of different goals, at this time of year and others, often revolving or relying on changing our behavior, ie: OUR HABITS.

Goals and habits can be best friends—or sometimes, depending, mortal enemies. Friends is better.

The more we can align our behaviors with our goals, the higher the likelihood is that we’ll reach them.

When setting any kind of goal, it’s important to “set ourselves up for success”. It sounds uninspired because it’s such a familiar instruction (clichés are usually just overripe truths–they’ve gotten mushy because we’ve heard them too often), but it’s actually really true and important—especially when the goal involves changing ingrained behavior.

here’s why:

When we decide we want to make a real, positive change, it’s easy to start strong. We’ve decided to do something we think will make us happier; it’s exciting! This is why so many resolutions seem to be going great in January (we’re jogging every morning! We’re flossing every night! We’re writing 1,500 words a day!), but as we get to the day-in-day-out work that any real change necessitates, the novelty starts to wear off and our energy dwindles and even vanishes. By March, all these ditched resolutions are wandering the streets in orphaned hordes, and we’re waking up late with food in our teeth, no idea where our sneakers even are, and we haven’t written more than six words in 2 weeks and four of them were swears. Everybody knows this feeling of having inadvertently abandoned our Own Great Plans: disappointment, confusion, frustration, shame.


It’s the worst! What happened? Why can’t we get with the program—and stick to it?

here’s why:

All too often, we don’t set ourselves up for success, which dooms us to fail from the start. We see this sparkly future-version of ourselves with toned legs and healthy gums, halfway to having written The Next Great Novel, and we’re able to ride those bright feelings easily in the beginning. But when the newness of it all starts to wear off (Ugh, I have to write again? What else can I say that I didn’t just say yesterday?) and some clouds blow in (do I have to still have to jog when it’s snowing?) we don’t have anything to fall back on–so we fall off.

So what does “setting up for success” actually involve? How can we construct goals that are self-reinforcing? How do we adjust the design itself so we’re sure to maintain our enthusiasm, enjoy the process (up, down, and sideways), make continual, discernable progress, and feel confident and optimistic not just as we begin, but as we go?

Start small.

The trick to reaching any goal is to set smaller, micro-goals in the form of actionable steps that we we can actually accomplish.


habits_start small_nesting dolls

It makes us feel good.
– We get a little burst of happiness each time we complete a step and can check it off (Hey, I did it! Go, me!)

It’s good for morale.
– Even micro-successes increase our sense of self-efficacy and confidence (I can plan something—and do it!)

It creates momentum.
– It helps us stay positive, hopeful, and energized as we see ourselves moving toward our larger goal(s) (Look! I’m getting closer!)

It’s great practice.
– Micro-goals build our planning, perseverance, and self-regulation muscles, preparing us to tackle bigger ones later  (If I can get here…I can probably get there, too!)

How do we structure these mini-goals?

  1. Make it manageable.
  2. Keep it clear.
  3. Know it’s meaningful.

one example

Last year, I decided to keep my resolutions simple and few, in a genuine attempt to set myself up for success. Each was habit/behavior-based. I had larger, more finite goals, too (finishing a program, completing my novel), and I knew these good habits would serve me well as I went along.

What did I do to keep each one simple?

I made it manageable. I limited myself to THREE goals that I could reasonably accomplish over the course of the year. (This concept and number ended up working beautifully for me in another area, too—more about that later!). To set ourselves up well, we have to be honest about both our superpowers and our limitations, so I made sure to bear both in mind.

I kept it clear. I made each goal VERY CLEAR. No list of specific rules for each, no complicated systems. I kept my goals simple enough that I could fit the jist in the little space on my habit tracker (just a word or two) and I could remember them easily.

I knew it was meaningful. I made sure my goals really felt IMPORTANT to me. They had to be goals I was both excited about and was fairly certain would support me and improve the quality of my life. I got real with my hopes and true priorities, and was honest with myself about what would be meaningful, contribute to my happiness, and add value to my experience of the year.

Here’s what I came up with:

1.  Write

2.  Meditate

3.  Only Love


I’d been working on a novel, and writing 500 words a day most days for most of the previous year. For the new year, I considered where I was really at with my work and this project, and what would support me in a meaningful way as I continued my creative work. I recognized that it wasn’t so much a daily word count I needed now, but to just work on my writing and stay in the creative headspace every day. What should I do to support this? I kept my goal simple and clear: Write, work on writing. Edit, revise, work on a different, shorter-form project, whatever; as long as I worked on creative writing and kept my head in it, I got to check the “Write” box on my chart for the day. Totally manageable.


I’d been working on a meditation practice already, too, but was having a hard time being as consistent as I wanted. I decided, as I had done with writing, that what I really wanted and felt I needed was to make it a daily practice, an every-single-day kind of thing. I knew that regular meditation made me feel more happier and more settled because I was more in control of my actions, reactions, and emotions (meaningful). Again, I kept it clear: Sit and meditate. Even as little as one minute of dedicated meditating, at first, would count (manageable), and I got to check it off. I wasn’t trying to win a meditation marathon! I just wanted it to become a reliable, positive part of my routine and life.

Only Love:

Training my puppy (Pearl) had been going great overall, but as she matured into a more independent and sometimes defiant teenage phase, we’d run into some snags. I’d lost my cool with her a few times, which always felt crummy and counterproductive. Frustration is natural, but reacting in frustration not only goes against my principles (training and otherwise) but doesn’t nurture the trusting and supportive kinship I wanted to have with my friend (meaningful). I decided to instate an “Only Love” goal (clear and manageable), as a daily reminder to myself that even when I get frustrated, it’s my intention to maintain my composure, and continue communicating mindfully and lovingly.

No matter what your goals are, these little guidelines will help you as you go about the sometimes-tricky business of setting them up. We feel good when we see ourselves persisting, improving, and making positive change. Those good feelings blossom into more good feelings, and set in motion what Positive Psychologists call the “upward spiral”. (Check out this great resource about it – the site itself is themed for parents and teachers, but it’s a fantastic, straightforward explanation that absolutely applies to everyone.) 

And for more about how the number THREE worked for me last year, check this out. (Book-lovers, especially!)

Breathe, love, be well, and stay tuned for more! xo, ali

Want to learn more? Let’s connect! I offer complimentary consultations and would love to explore working together.

I'm a writer, artist, bookseller, educator, and certified Positive Psychology coach based in Burlington, Vermont.

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