Why the ‘micro-habit’ could be 2022’s answer to making healthy goals stick

    Published: 30 December 2021. Written by Emma Pritchard. 

    If you find health resolutions difficult to keep, our bite-sized formula could be just what you need to help you stay on track for good. Find out why micro-habits could help you achieve your goals.

    New year, fresh start. After the indulgence, merriment and excess of the festive period, we should all feel positive about the blank slate signified by the first day of January. But when it comes to healthy New Year’s resolutions, how many have you maintained long-term? 

    According to figures from international research data and YouGov, a mere 26% of those who make resolutions will stick with them for the year. In fact, the number of people who start – and stop – a new-year wellness journey is so great that the second Friday of January has been nicknamed ‘Quitter’s Day’ in their honour.

    But help is at hand. According to experts, when it comes to creating healthy, positive, long-lasting change, we’ve been going about things in the wrong way. ‘Humans are, typically, overconfident,’ explains Dr Katie Tryon, Director of Clinical at Vitality. ‘We overestimate our ability to achieve our New Year’s resolutions and don’t plan for the challenges we’ll inevitably face along the way – such as “life”. After the holiday period is over, work, family and financial responsibilities can quickly force us to prioritise, which, more often than not, results in us giving up on our new healthy habits.’

    Dr Tryon’s recommendation? Micro-resolutions. 

    This means committing to small, manageable and measurable changes in behaviour. Because small yet sustainable behaviour changes are more manageable long-term than drastic lifestyle changes.

    ‘It’s far easier to estimate the effort required to achieve a smaller target and to plan for them in our daily life,’ Dr Tryon explains. ‘Small and consistent short-term changes can result in habit formation, which is key to adjusting long-term behaviour. We’re all creatures of habit and, once changes are embedded in our habits, we’re far more likely to stick with them.’

    The movement towards micro-habits has been gaining momentum over the past few years. A review by University College London (UCL) shows that setting smaller goals can result in greater gains in the long term. Think cutting down on the number of sugars in your tea from two to one; then, when that’s established, cutting out sugar from your tea entirely.

    The UCL team says it takes 10 weeks for a new habit to form, with expectations that are unrealistic more likely to be tossed aside in this time frame. This, in turn, undermines self-confidence and can negatively affect the success of future goal setting.

    ‘The “all-or-nothing mindset” holds us back when it comes to maintaining our health goals,’ says Jonny Kibble, Head of Exercise and Physical Activity at Vitality. ‘While setting lofty targets is fine when motivation is high, once it drops – which is inevitable and natural – we struggle to maintain our willpower. Smaller goals enable us to build momentum. For example, it’s much easier to sustain your “walk 1,000 more steps than you used to” target than a “hit the gym five times a week” goal. Moreover, 365 days of walking an extra 1,000 steps a day will be more effective at keeping you active than one month of hitting the gym five days a week, where you struggle and then stop for the rest of the year.’ 

    But not all micro-resolutions are made equal. Set yourself up for success with our five-step guide to creating habits that will last a lifetime: 

    Woman cycling to work and making a micro habit

    1. Start very small 

    ‘That might be finding five minutes every other day to elevate your heart rate or getting off the bus one stop earlier (as opposed to setting the challenge of walking the whole way),’ says Kibble. ‘Consider where you are, fitness-wise, and let that be your starting point. Ask yourself: “Is this habit so simple, I’ll still be doing it in three weeks, three months, three years?” While a New Year’s resolution typically outlines an end goal, a micro-resolution is a building block towards it.’ 

    1. Attach micro-habits to something you already do

    ‘Research shows that habit stacking – connecting your new habit to something you already consistently do – works,’ says Kibble. ‘Try stretching while brushing your teeth, seeing how many press-ups you can do before the microwave pings, doing two pull-ups every time you go through a door (you’ll need a pull-up bar), sitting on the floor to watch the TV (to improve mobility) or slamming out five burpees every time you hit your alarm’s snooze button in the morning.’

    person going for a run òtying shoelace

    1. Get motivated

    ‘Set up a structure of incentives to help you to keep going along the way,’ says Dr Tryon. ‘”Hyperbolic discounting” is a phenomenon where we tend to choose smaller, immediate rewards over larger, later ones. So the reward of not making the effort (for example sitting on the sofa over going for a run) can outweigh the benefits of making that effort (the future health gains).’ 

    woman using a wearable device to make micro habits

    1. Use an activity tracker

    ‘How we are prompted or cued to carry out our goals is a key fundamental of building long-lasting habits – and activity trackers are great for this,’ says Kibble. ‘Set yourself a reminder to stand up every hour, or use your tracker to monitor your step target. Even just using it to check your progress can help boost motivation and keep you on course.’

    Person writing goals in a notebook

    1. Be SMART

    ‘When setting any type of goal or making a resolution, it can help to use the “SMART” acronym, which, in this instance, stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound,’ says Dr Tryon. ‘The new year is the perfect opportunity to set micro-resolutions, because having a break from work and spending time with friends and family creates the space for us to reflect on what our goals should be, while also providing a clearly defined start date to measure progress.’

    So set your sights small this new year – your wellbeing is for life, not just January, after all.