Need a “Fresh Start?” How to Create Habits That Stick

“So, I Think I Would Like to Lose Some Weight.” 

My client (who gave me permission to share her story) came in wanting my take on what I think about her desire to lose weight. We’ve been working together for a while – not on weight loss – but on helping her eat in a way that feels good to her, feel better in her body, and manage her blood sugars with type 2 diabetes, among other things. 

She expressed that she has learned so much and what we’ve covered to this point has been super helpful. She said while it isn’t something she is ready to turn her life upside down to accomplish, as we begin 2024 she is feeling a desire to lose weight. 

Together we explored what that might look like and how that might feel. I asked her to tell me the words that come to mind when she thinks of weight loss. The words she said – HARD and FRUSTRATING. Almost in the same breath she expressed a desire to move more, talking about pickleball and yoga and I could sense her mood lifting and a little bit of joy and excitement. I asked her what words came to mind when she thought of doing those activities. She said FUN. We talked about the contrast between the two paths, weight loss and doing things that feel good to our bodies and that we know are beneficial to our health. 

“New Year, New You” Nonsense

As the new year begins, it is normal and very common to want to do something different, a natural human phenomenon we will touch on in a bit called the “fresh start effect.” But, why does that have to be weight loss or stopping this or that behavior, or cutting back? Also, why do we think we have to throw everything out and completely start over?

What my client and I talked about, and what I would propose here, is that we come to this new year with those goals and intentions because it is what we have always done. It is also what everyone else is doing around us and we hear this message loudly everywhere we turn this time of year in ads, at the gym, online, etc. Many of us see only one path, weight loss and dieting, but that is far from the only path we can take.

What we know though is that only 10% of people that make New Year’s resolutions stick with them. Even if we don’t call it a “resolution” – because most of us know that those are destined to fail – the changes we want to make typically don’t stick. 

So that is what I will touch on here, how to take advantage of our natural desire to start fresh in the New Year without going on a destined to fail diet, setting goals that are all about scarcity and subtraction, or falling into the “new year, new you” nonsense. 

The Fresh Start Effect

The Fresh Start Effect is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the increased motivation and renewed energy that people often feel at the start of a new time-based milestone – like the start of the new year, a birthday, the beginning of a new school semester, the change of seasons, or even the start of a new week. We naturally desire a “fresh start” at certain times to disrupt the minutia and everyday humdrum of life. 

The feeling of wanting a change or to start something new is a wonderful thing to take advantage of. It is important to know that feeling the urge for a fresh start is a great way to get started, but what research on habit formation shows us is that it takes more than just getting started to create habits that actually stick. 

We think we can just get started  and then use willpower to push through, but willpower isn’t a reliable long term resource for making habit change. The getting started part is great, but beyond that we know there are some other important factors that can help us keep a habit or behavior change going. 

Here are a few things to consider to help you build habits and routines that run on auto-pilot AND are enjoyable. 

Make it Fun

Building enjoyment and fun into any new habit is a great way to keep it going. If we are approaching any new habit with the feeling of drudgery because it is unpleasant, we aren’t likely to stick with it for the long haul. We often think we just need to push through the pain and misery, but this actually does not prove to be true. 

For example, I’ve written before about finding fun and joy in movement. If you want to move more, the first thing to spend some time considering is what would be fun or interesting or enjoyable. Or, if you want to learn how to cook, how can you make that fun? Maybe you take a cooking class or learn to cook with a friend. The bottom line is that people who bring fun and enjoyment into new goals are more apt to stick with them. 

Make it About Adding Not Subtracting

So often we make food related intentions this time of year that focus on taking away. A friend recently told me she was cutting way back on sugar and there is a lot of talk of Dry January right now. There is nothing inherently bad about deciding you want to eat less sugar or drink less, but in order for goals and intentions to last, I firmly believe they need to be less about restriction and more about adding in. The opposite of going on a diet. Our brains just don’t like to be restricted and so therefore rebel. I also firmly believe we focus way too much on weight loss as the goal instead of caring for ourselves in better and more meaningful ways. 

These are some options to consider that are all about adding:

  • Learn to cook/bake
  • Spend more time in nature
  • Move your body in new and different ways 
  • Add in a food you know to be beneficial for the body (maybe it’s vegetables, maybe it’s fruit, maybe it’s nuts, maybe it’s beans, maybe its leafy greens. You pick.)
  • Spend more energy on loving people well
  • Sharing faith and hope with more people
  • Start flexibly planning meals
  • More travel
  • Dance more
  • Drink more water
  • More live music (this is one I set at my most recent birthday in October! Throughout this year I plan to see live music of some kind once a month.))
  • More attention to the present moment
  • Try a new type of cuisine
  • Meditate more 
  • More laughter
  • Start packing snacks and/or lunch for the day
  • More yoga/stretching
  • Be more kind and compassionate to yourself
  • More time in the Bible and in prayer

I loved what Melissa Kirsch had to say on this topic in her recent NY Times column, Unresolved Issues, “I like the idea of declaring an intention to make a change. I deplore the idea of setting myself up to fail. My policy on New Year’s resolutions is that they shouldn’t be too punishing, and they shouldn’t be too grand. We often use a resolution as a cudgel, as a method to get ourselves back in line, a means of eradicating the parts of ourselves we don’t like.” 

If you’ve made or thought about making some intentions for the new year already, how could you switch them up to make them more about adding to your life, rather than subtracting?

For more inspiration on what it might look like to make intentions that help you approach food in a non-diet way and improve your relationship with food, check out 9 Non-Diet New Years Resolutions shared by fellow non-diet dietitian, Alissa Rumsey.

Expect Setbacks and Be Flexible

Obstacles are inevitable. Life WILL get in the way. Resilience and the ability to bounce back after a setback is critical for any habit change to stick. I wrote all about recovering from a setback recently, so check that out for inspiration.

When you plan for the reality of setbacks and obstacles you are building in flexibility. Any goal or intention that is flexible versus rigid is way more apt to stick. I think we think the opposite is true. That we have to have a plan set in stone and follow it to a T in order to be successful. What the research shows us is that in fact building in flexibility and elasticity gives us options for regrouping when things don’t go quite the way we planned and allows the opportunity to find other solutions. 

Pick a Word to Guide You

You might have heard of this. Instead of setting resolutions or goals, the idea is to pick one word to guide your intentions, behaviors, thoughts, and actions throughout the year. I personally decided to do this last year and it was so cool. 

My word for 2023 was acceptance. I, and we collectively, tend to not be accepting of so much, which causes us distress and suffering. We struggle to accept ourselves, others, life situations, interactions with people, our bodies, aging, our choices, etc. so I wanted to work on being more accepting of everything. It was amazing how that one word would pop up in my mind and serve as a reminder. Often times I would find myself struggling with one thing or another and I would hear a whisper of…are you approaching this from a place of acceptance?

I have decided this year to continue using acceptance as a guide, but to add on a new word, resilience. The Oxford definition of resilience is “the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” As life changes, I enter midlife, and my children grow up and move on I want to be able to approach this transition with resilience – and acceptance – of what is. If this resonates with you, you might run through a list and see what stands out and then narrow it down to the one that fits your life and situation the best.


So, I encourage you to absolutely take advantage of your desire for a “fresh start,” but to do it wisely. Don’t take on too much at once, but instead use the tips I’ve written about here and choose 1 or 2 intentions to work on at a time, maybe even one month at a time. Real change and habit formation happen more slowly than we like but are far more sustainable in the long run. Buck the “new year, new you” nonsense that implies that we have to completely reinvent ourselves and instead make real changes that actually might last beyond Super Bowl Sunday! 

Need some support? I would love to help. 

Want to hear more about forming habits that stick? Check out Episode #345 of the Ten Percent Happier Podcast, How to Change Your Habits with guest Dr. Katy Milkman. Dr. Milkman is a renowned behavior change researcher and NYTimes bestselling author of the book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.


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