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New Year's resolutions are meaningless without the habits to help you stick to them

BJ Fogg
Source: BJ Fogg

Don't rely on willpower when it comes to your New Year's resolutions. You don't need determination to change your behavior, says scientist B.J. Fogg, Ph.D.

What you need, instead, are habits, according to Fogg, a social science research associate who founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University. And the way you build a habit is by making it easy and starting small.

That's the message of Fogg's new book "Tiny Habits."

"When something is tiny, it's easy to do," Fogg said.

Just three things create lasting change: "Have an epiphany, change our environment or change our habits in tiny ways," Fogg said. "Start by creating [small] positive habits.

"It's the path to developing much bigger ones."

Why motivation doesn't work

Another thing you don't need: Motivation.

It sounds counterintuitive — how can you stick to a budget or an exercise plan without a driving force? — but motivation does not keep you going.

In fact, motivations shift up and down depending on your current circumstances. That's why you can start off the year fired up about saving money or exercising but lose enthusiasm after a couple of months. What you likely can't do is predict your motivation level at some future date.

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"You can't do hard things when your motivation sags," Fogg said. "It maps back to evolutionary psychology. We are wired to put effort into the things that matter most."

And these things can change in a moment. A long day, lack of sleep or an argument with someone you care about can all derail your best intentions.

Add some skills

A good way to start is by doing as little as possible.

Learn some new skills. If your resolution is bringing lunch, make it an immediate, easy goal to watch a few minutes of YouTube videos on simple healthy meals for 30 minutes one night.

You can fit this new habit into your weekly schedule as a three-minute exercise.

The tiny habit has a ripple effect, Fogg says. People respond differently to this early phase. Some may dive in immediately and start making lunch; others may take longer to change their behavior.

Start small

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Small is powerful, says Pauline Yan, a personal finance blogger. "I'm a big proponent of 1% increases in savings.

"Most people can't save 20%, but they can start at 5%, then add 1% every month" or every year, she said.

Minuscule changes help you avoid anxiety.

Instead of declaring you'll forever stop spending money on lunch out, decide to bring lunch once — not all year, and not for the rest of your life, intentions that could spark stress. Just decide to do it once, which instantly makes it less intimidating.

If it goes well, consider doing it three days a week, Fogg says.

Once you're used to making your own lunch, find some ways to make it easy to do.

You might want to invest in some gear, like a lunch bag and containers. Find some recipes for lunches that you'll like that are easy to make.

"The key is to wire a habit," Fogg said. "It's so important to feel successful the first time" you try out your new behavior.

Change together

If you want to change the way you eat, consume media, handle finances, "do it as a household if possible," Fogg says. "If you can get everybody on board, your chances of success go way up."

Whether you live with family or roommates, it's much harder for a person to go it alone.

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No shame

If your resolutions bring some actual pain, you're almost certain to ditch them.

"We set resolutions out of shame and then proceed to punish ourselves for the next month," said Yan.

This could mean working out too much or cutting spending so harshly you feel deprived. "Give yourself the chance to show up and have a series of small wins," Yan said.

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