We’re roughly two weeks into the New Year—which means it’s just about time for even the best-intentioned New Years’ resolutions to start to fall apart. Hey, it happens: enthusiasm fades, reality kicks in, and resolutions end up being forgotten or abandoned.
But what if your resolutions have something to do with parenting? Do you really want to put those resolutions on hold for an entire year?
The good news is that you don’t have to! I've been reading up on the science of habit change and I've identified four key strategies that can help you get back on track. Here's what you need to know....
Strategy One: Engage in Some Mental Time Travel
The most effective trick that I came across while pouring through the research on the science of habit change literature also happens to be a strategy I stumbled upon on my own, simply by chance. I found that if I was having a really tough day as a parent (let’s say, I woke up with a headache; and my husband was working midnights; and all four kids were acting up), I could keep my emotions in check and parent in a way that I could feel good about at the end of the day by focusing on the kind of relationship I hoped to have with my kids in years to come.
It was all about engaging in mental time travel—connecting with my future self.
I’d mentally picture my kids when they were all grown up, talking about me with one of their friends, saying things like, “My mom was the kind of mom who….dot, dot, dot” Or “I grew up in the kind of family where….dot, dot, dot” – and I decided that if I wanted them to have good things to say after the “dot, dot, dot,” I needed to make our relationship the priority in the here and now.
Well, as it turns out, there’s some pretty solid science to support this particular strategy. The science of habit change tells us that you’ll find it easier to stick with a new habit if you make a point of mentally projecting the outcome for your future self (as opposed to giving into temptation in the moment). In other words, parenting with your big-picture parenting goals in mind.
Strategy Two: Make an Identity Shift
As it turns out, this piece of the puzzle is huge. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do to shift your behaviour is by shifting your identity—or, in some cases, your entire family’s identity.
Let’s say that your parenting resolution is to make the shift from being a family of couch potatoes to a family that is active together on a regular basis. If you start telling yourself “We’re the kind of family of family that does something physically active together every weekend,” you’ll find it easier to make this your family’s new normal. That’s because you won’t have to make the decision about whether or not to be active together each and every weekend: your family’s new identity will simply remind you that being active is what you do because, hey, you’re that kind of family!
Of course, this will feel really awkward at first. You’ll feel like an imposter (“Who us?!! We're the poster family for couch potatoes!”) But, over time, your behaviour and your identity will shift. In the meantime, all you’ve got to do is to heed that old advice to “Fake it until you make it.”
Strategy Three: Anchor Your New Habit to an Existing Habit
One of the most effective strategies for getting a new habit to stick is to anchor that a brand new habit on an existing habit.
For example, let’s say that your resolution is to spend a bit of time at the start or end of each day, reflecting on what is (and isn’t) going well in your life as a parent, so that you can learn from that.
The easiest way to remember to do this thinking is to anchor this thinking habit to something you already do on a regular basis, like brushing your teeth—to say to yourself, “I always reflect on how my day is going while I’m brushing my teeth.” Over time, this moment of self-reflection will become as automatic as reaching for your toothbrush and your toothpaste!
Strategy Three: Seek Support from Your Parenting Village
Don't overlook that fact that other people who care about you and your kids may be able to offer practical assistance or moral support or both.
If, for example, you’ve resolved to make more home-cooked meals this year, you might decide to get together with another family (or even a group of families) to swap recipes and/or to batch cook together.
Likewise, if your resolution is to be active together more often as a family, you might want to join forces with some other parents you know to plan multi-family hikes, swims, and bike rides. Or to encourage and motivate one another via text message or social media. Or all of the above…..
It can take time—and repeated efforts—for a new habit to stick. So don’t assume that all hope is lost the first time you accidentally revert to couch potato mode or find yourself reigniting your love affair with your smartphone. Simply resolve to keep trying.
And as for beating yourself up for falling short of your lofty goals? That isn’t helpful in the least.
Instead, make a point of treating yourself with at least as much compassion as you would extend to a friend who was struggling to keep his or her parenting resolutions. (You wouldn’t be much of a friend if you browbeat your friend for falling short and yet it’s so easy to adopt that ultra-critical stance with yourself.)
What we’re talking about here is practicing self-compassion – one of the most powerful ingredients in the recipe for lasting change. Resolve to treat yourself to regular and ample servings of it this year.