How to Set an Intention That Sticks for 2014

Why does it sometimes feel like it's effortless to let negative habits creep up, but when we want to change them -- or add a new healthy habit -- it feels nearly impossible?
12/31/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Mar 02, 2014

Will you be making resolutions this week?

A more important question might be: Will you be keeping them?

Every January, people make lists of how they want to overhaul their lives: de-clutter, de-stress, lose weight, stop smoking, and so on.

Why does it sometimes feel like it's effortless to let negative habits creep up, but when we want to change them -- or add a new healthy habit -- it feels nearly impossible?

A big part of it is how we frame those habits. If we look at the bad habits as something we enjoy and the good habits as some sort of "eat your Brussels sprouts" sort of punishment, it's hard to embrace the good ones. If you want to exercise more often and you see running as a chore or something you'd only do if forced, it will be difficult to welcome running as a new habit.

What if instead of treating January as a time to do a giant makeover on everything negative in our lives, we search for small ways to add more of what brings us joy?

1. Ask yourself why this is important to you.

Is this something you want to include in your life, or something you think you should do? Is it something your partner wants you to do? Is it something you read about and think would be good for you? All of those reasons are valid, but you are more likely to stick with things with an internal motivation. If you know why you want to do something, it can help you stay motivated. If you want to start a daily yoga practice because you want to gain strength, flexibility and greater internal calm, you have a better chance of sticking with it than if you just read that Adam Levine does it and thought it might be cool.

2. Build on a current positive behavior or attitude.

Sometimes people feel the need to make dramatic sweeping changes in their lifestyle. Unless there has been some big event to precipitate this, it can be tough to sustain. We've all read stories of people who were faced with a potential terminal illness and made massive health changes to reverse it. If you aren't in that situation, a life overhaul might be too much at once. Instead, adding a habit that builds on something you are already doing. For example, if you love to read and you'd like to watch less television, commit to reading a book a week and use the time you would have spent on television to read. If you love taking pictures, take a picture every day pre- or post-run in the same spot and you will have an amazing photo journal of the seasons changing.

3. Choose a positive way to frame the change.

Our brains are funny this way. Ask a child to stop jumping on the bed and you'll probably have to say it several times before she stops. Ask the same child to sit down, and you may get the outcome you're looking for faster. It's easier for us to integrate an idea like, "I want be fully present during meals," instead of, "I want to stop multitasking while I eat." Shifting your focus to the behavior you want is a small but significant difference. Focus on what you want to add to your life, rather than what you'd like to remove.

4. Place visual cues where you see them often.

A bedroom or bathroom mirror, bulletin board or the refrigerator are all great places for this. When I first started shifting to a daily yoga practice, keeping my mat and a favorite quote about yoga where I would see them when I first woke up was a huge help. There are also plenty of apps designed for this purpose, especially for fitness-related habits, but using something simple like an alert on Google calendar works well too.

5. Treat it like an experiment.

I am the master of trying something for a day and a half and deciding I hate it. Or at least I used to be. I had a friend re-frame the idea this way: What if instead of treating it as a pass or fail situation, we approached these changes with curiosity? What would it be like to start the day with green tea instead of coffee? What would it be like to go to hot yoga two mornings a week? What would it be like if I started unplugging earlier at night? If we treat these intentions as experiments, we can shift our whole perspective. If instead of making a laundry list of everything that's wrong with life, you experiment with adding gratitude or embracing compassion, the results may amaze you.

May you add beautiful things to your life in 2014!