Keeping to new year resolutions and the power of habit

Keeping to new year resolutions and the power of habit

As a marketer I spend a lot of time, in fact probably too much, thinking about behaviour change and how to achieve it.
Whether it’s changing a behaviour for a commercial or social gain, getting people to do things differently is what most of marketing boils down to.
And at this time of year plenty of people are wrestling with making behaviour changes stick – as the novelty of changes they’ve made as new year resolutions begins to wear off.
It reminds me of a book I read last year about habits – The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – and what I learnt from it.
Duhigg explains that many of the thousands of decisions we make every day aren’t made consciously – we just do many things on a kind of autopilot that’s hardwired into our brains. Psychologists recognise this as the unconscious or automatic process within dual process theory.
Those habits are vital to us going about our daily lives without getting stuck in endless deliberations with ourselves about mundane things that just need to happen. If we used conscious thinking all the time, everything would take a lot longer.
And this is where the power of habit comes in, as Duhigg explains how you can train your mind to rewire the hardwired habits within your mind to help change behaviour – whether it’s yours or trying to influence behaviour in others.
For a change like a new year resolution to stick, it takes more than just willpower.
Duhigg identifies the habit loop as being a useful tool in understanding habit-based behaviour. There are three components to the habit loop:

  • The cue – the thing that triggers off the habit loop
  • The routine – the behaviour that you exhibit in response to the cue
  • The reward – the thing that you receive – usually something you like – as a result of the routine

To effectively change behaviour in the long term, we need to clearly identify cues and then develop new behaviours as a routine response to these cues. Without doing this, the old hardwired habit loops will take over before too long.
For example, last new year I made a commitment to myself to do at least 15 minutes exercise every day.
I live a pretty hectic life so I knew this was going to be a challenge, especially as I’d tried before.
What I’d tried to do was to go for a quick run around 7pm once I’d put our children to bed each evening.
But once I’d kissed them goodnight, I really struggled to motivate myself to get changed into my running gear and go out in the dark and cold, especially having been at work all day.
In my case the cue, putting my children to bed, was linked to the routine of going downstairs and making something to eat. I was trying to override this habit and go for a run – but failing to stick to my commitment to exercise.
Once I realised this habit loop existed, I worked out that if I changed into my running kit before putting the children to bed, once I hit the cue, it was a lot easier to go straight out running as I was already dressed and ready to go. I managed to break a habit loop through a minor change in the order I did things in and change my behaviour.
So coming back full circle to marketing, it’s really important that when we look at the desired behaviour we’re seeking from a campaign, we think about cues, routines and rewards in how we design marketing campaigns if they’re to be genuinely effective.
Happy new year!


I work with technology-centric businesses as an interim Chief Operating Officer (COO), consultant and advisor. I created the B3 framework® for scaling technology businesses and I write a newsletter called Build for leaders who are building brilliant companies.