New Year’s resolutions.
It’s traditional on New Year’s Eve to make New Year’s resolutions. People promise themselves they will lose weight, drink less, quit smoking or start exercising. If they are lucky, they might keep up their new year’s resolutions for a couple of weeks before they run out of steam. Some people will succeed, but many people fail. Why is it so hard to create new habits and even harder to break old ones?
The usefulness of habits
Every morning I take my dog for a walk. Sometimes we go out with friends and do different walks, but most of the time we do a familiar loop from our house. We walk out of our house, across the road, around the field then back up the hill and home. It’s so familiar I don’t have to think about it. Once I get started it’s easy and effortless and I can think about something else – what I’m going to be doing that day, enjoy just looking at the scenery or whatever takes my fancy.
Even the dog knows that when we reach the field we normally loop around to the right. Just occasionally I will make a conscious decision to break out of the loop and do something different, but that takes thought and effort, and the default is to walk the normal route. The downside of this is it can be a bit boring. If I make an effort to go somewhere new, then it’s generally more enjoyable walking somewhere different. So why do I do this?
Because it’s easy. The dog needs walking and it’s the easiest way to get the job done. At each point on the walk, I don’t have to make a conscious decision whether to turn left or right because I’ve done it so many times before, it’s automatic. I have created a habit, which means as I walk, I can think about something else.
Our brains have so much information to process, that they need to prioritize. Our brains routinely offload decision-making and processing into a routine that becomes a habit and is dealt with by the subconscious, then it allows the conscious part of the brain to focus on the things that are important. If we had to consciously make decisions about every tiny little thing, all of the time, it would tire us out or overwhelm us. Think of the first day in a new job. When everything is new and unfamiliar it’s exhausting. Or a baby learning to walk – before its routine, it’s a huge effort. Habits are useful to us because they allow our brains to be efficient, offloading routine tasks to the subconscious and allowing the conscious brain to do the important stuff.
How do habits work?
The key to making or breaking habits is to understand how they work. When a habit has been created, the brain automatically responds to a cue or trigger with a physical, mental, or emotional response – a pattern of behaviour that has become routine. That behaviour then culminates in a reward of some type, which makes us feel good, which feeds back to the brain, and the habit becomes more embedded.
For example, I see a packet of Cadbury’s Mini Eggs, I tear them open and crunch on the delicious chocolatey eggs. My brain gets a little dopamine hit to say that was good! (Dopamine is the hormone associated with reward). Next time I see Mini Eggs, I’m programmed to respond. By the time I’ve been through the cycle a few times, just thinking about Mini Eggs starts me salivating, much like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
Creating new habits
So, if (some!) habits are useful then we need to know how to create new ones. As everyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution and not managed to keep it knows, it’s not always that easy. The more we repeat something, the deeper entrenched becomes that habit, in the same way as the path around the field gets deeper every time the dog and I walk around it, but how do we start the process?
Pick a goal that matters to YOU
Firstly, we are more likely to succeed if what we are trying to achieve matters to us, and we like doing it. This is called intrinsic motivation. If we decide to start exercising because we want to become healthier, and we chose dancing because we like dancing, every time we go dancing, we will enjoy it and that will feedback to reinforce the behaviour. If we do something that we don’t really want to do to gain approval from others this won’t reinforce the habit in the same way.
Start small and make it easy
The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about how to start running, was to promise yourself that you would put on your running shoes and step outside the front door. By making the first step really simple, it’s easy to succeed. Having got that far, the chances are that you will start jogging down the road. The next day you might run a little further – or maybe some days you will run a little less. But it doesn’t matter – you’re making progress, and every time you do, you are reinforcing that habit.
Plan ahead and use cues
It’s not quite enough to decide to do something. We also need to decide when we are going to do something and link it to a cue for it to become a habit. So, if I want to start running, I need to work out when I’m going to do it and try to use a cue to trigger that behaviour. If I decide to run in the morning, I can get my running stuff out the night before – then in the morning when I wake up, seeing it there will cue my new routine of putting on my shoes and getting out the door.
Another way to use cues is to ‘habit stack’ – add something onto something that you do already. Rangan Chatterjee suggests using the time whilst the kettle boils to do a few squats or push-ups against the kitchen counter. By adding a tiny bit of exercise in as a new habit in this way, if you drink as much tea as we do in our house, you will soon be fit!
What about breaking bad habits?
Breaking old habits is harder than making new ones, as they are already ingrained in our brains. The trick here is to use our knowledge of the habit loop to stop the old behaviour happening.
Change your environment to avoid cues that trigger the behaviour you are trying to stop
If you want to lose weight and you love biscuits, don’t keep them on the worktop. Put them in a cupboard out of sight, on a high shelf, or don’t buy them at all. It sounds obvious, but it works! Remember our brains are lazy and that’s good – so don’t make them work to resist temptation, keep temptation out the way.
Think ahead and find a new behaviour to substitute for the old one
We can keep biscuits out of reach, but we can’t rid the world of biscuits, so what happens when we get that cookie craving. Firstly, we need to understand what that craving is really about. Are we hungry, or bored? Could we substitute a different behaviour instead? Eat an apple or an oatcake? Or drink a glass of water? Walk round the garden or go talk to someone for ten minutes?
Experiment with different behaviours to see what works for you. This is your chance to be creative! Once you’ve found something that works for you, build it into a new habit to replace the old.
Involve other people
We are social creatures, and we don’t like to lose face. If we publicly declare an intention, we are more likely to fulfil it. But pick your supporters wisely, share your intentions with people who will support you and cheer you on your way, not sabotage your good intentions. Finding other like-minded people to support you, particularly if you are trying to build up to a big change is really important. Everyone know that to lose weight you need to eat less, but slimming clubs are popular because they provide that mutual support that makes a difference.
Believe that you will succeed
Again, this sounds obvious, but it’s important. Addiction programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous require a commitment to God or a higher power. Researchers investigating why this was important found that the importance wasn’t so much a belief in God, but a belief that things could change. This is another reason why support groups are so valuable – if you surround yourself by people who have changed and who have struggled to do so, you can believe that it is possible, that you can change too.
Complex problems will require multiple solutions – start small and build up
If we want to change something big, it isn’t going to happen overnight. Going all out for change can backfire if we don’t feel like we’re making progress and starting lots of new habits at once might be overwhelming. But by taking small steps and celebrating each success, we can build up to something big. Pick one thing, make it simple and start. When that new habit is embedded, move onto the next.
Always, always be kind to yourself
Remember, your brain is lazy, and it’s designed like that to be efficient. When we slip back into bad habits, it’s just our brain going into automatic and running that old routine. When that happens, don’t beat yourself up, it happens to everyone. Just give your lazy brain a bit of a talking to, then get it to help you work out how to get back on track. What went wrong? Was it a trigger that you could have avoided? Or is there more you can do to work on new alternative behaviours? Little steps, just keep going.
When you succeed, celebrate your success
Celebrate the success of each tiny new habit. Pat yourself on the back. Tell a friend. Keep going with that habit until it becomes routine. Understanding how the habit loop works has allowed you to make or break a habit, now you have the fun of deciding what to tackle next!
There are some excellent books on the subject of habits, with lots of great stories to illustrate their points.
“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg
“Atomic Habits” by James Clear – I haven’t yet read this, but it has excellent reviews and looks to cover much of the same ground.
If you prefer podcasts, Rangan Chatterjee’s “Feel Better, Live More” series of podcasts feature many interesting interviews about healthy lifestyles, including a recent interview with James Clear. https://drchatterjee.com/how-to-build-good-habits-and-break-bad-ones-with-james-clear/
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