In January there will be a topic of conversation on a lot of people’s lips – New Year’s resolutions. It’s highly likely you’ll catch either yourself, or someone you know, saying the following:
‘My resolutions are (insert resolution one here), (insert resolution two here) and (insert resolution three here).’
For the sake of this article, let’s fill in these blanks with some of the most common ones:
‘My New Years resolutions are; to join the gym and go three times a week, to stop smoking, and to stop snacking on chocolate and crisps!
The 1st of January finally arrives, and the ‘new you’ can finally be unveiled to the world!
You’ve been really wanting to make these changes for a while, and can’t wait to get going. It all gets off to a very promising start:
- You bought a couple of boxes of nicotine patches and have your last celebratory cigarette at 11:58pm on 31st of December.
- You join the gym within the first couple of days of the new year.
- You’re consistently using the nicotine patches, and although you are feeling a bit of a craving, you’re buzzing off of the high of not having smoked a cigarette at all.
- You go to the gym three times – every muscle in your body aches, but you feel great.
- You have eaten apples, bananas and granola bars for snacks all week.
- You went to the gym three times again this week! Although you’re feeling fitter you’re starting to find it much harder to motivate yourself to go on the days you said you would.
- You’re still using the nicotine patches, and haven’t had a cigarette in nearly ten days. But because you’re feeling tired from all of the new exercise, combined with your normal daily workload, you’re really starting to crave one (or more!) at the end of the day.
- Although you’re still eating healthier snacks in the day, on three separate evenings you ate some chocolate and/or crisps.
- You woke up feeling tired on the Tuesday and the craving is really overwhelming now and you want to light up. You managed to not smoke in the morning, but had a really busy few hours answering endless emails, and by the afternoon end up going out and smoking during your break.
- You only went to the gym once, at the beginning of the week. You resolve that you will go again at the weekend.
- You end up smoking between three to five cigarettes after work on both Thursday and Friday
- On Thursday you were feeling really tired and hungry. While you were browsing the aisles in the supermarket you picked up a pack of three of your favourite chocolate bars on your way home. You ate two of them that night. You take the other one to work with you and eat it for breakfast.
- The weekend arrives, and you don’t go to the gym as you said you would.
- You now haven’t been to the gym in nearly two weeks.
- You’re back to smoking ten to fifteen cigarettes a day.
- Although you’re still eating the odd granola bar, you’re also back to eating chocolate and crisps for lunch and in the evenings.
You meet up with a friend who asks how your resolutions are coming along.
‘Yeah I did well in the beginning, but it was too hard. But, ah well, there always next year!’
For the next eleven months you go back to your unhealthy habits and have a gym membership you’ve paid for but don’t use (and end up canceling after a few more months of not going).
But you reason with yourself that next year it will be different. Next year your resolutions will happen because you will really make those changes…unlike this year.
December comes around again and you’re ready to sign up to the gym once more, you’ve stocked the cupboard full of healthy snacks, and on the 31st December you have your last last celebratory cigarette at 11:57pm…
Why Am I Telling You About This?
Although the idea of New Year’s resolutions is a fantastic one – seeing it as new start to practise some new habits and be a better version of yourself – the reality is most people will openly admit that they aren’t able to sustain it in the long-term.
For the most part, instead of boosting us up, these resolutions seem to highlight how we continue to fall down. Even when we do genuinely want to change it can inadvertently feed the rhetoric that we might hold about ourselves which is; ‘See, it’s just the way I am, I can’t change’.
But, you can!
Understanding Our Habits
The basis of most New Year’s resolutions are rooted in you wanting to change a habit you currently have for a more desired one. So it’s essential to understand some of the basics regarding how habits are formed.
‘Habits are the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day. At one point we all consciously decided how much to eat, what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to drink, or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behaviour became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.’ (Charles Duhigg)
The Habit Loop
There is an incredibly simple structure to help remember how a habit is created, which is part of a three-step process of the ‘habit loop’: The cue starts the routine which brings about the reward.
A cue can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a chocolate bar or a TV commercial to a certain place, a time of day, a sequence of thoughts or the company of particular people. Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation.
The cue is a trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward: cue, routine, reard – becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of craving an anticipation emerges. Eventually, a habit is born. (Charles Duhigg)
As the habit emerges, your mental activity around that action decreases, and will continue to do so as the habit solidifies. Meaning you no longer have to actively think about each step, as your brain goes into auto-pilot of starting the process when it sees the relevant cue. This all takes place in a part of the brain called the basal-ganglia, which stores all of your habits, so the rest of the brain is free to think of other things.
For example – the cue of seeing a chocolate bar – the routine of eating it – the reward that it tasted good. It’s more than likely that your mind was thinking of something else for the majority/entirety of the time that you were eating.
Ultimately, the first step of wanting to change an old habit for a new one, is to be consciously aware of your own habit loops. You need to actively pay attention and know what sparks it to take place. That way you can work at making the desired change happen each and every time it occurs. By doing so you will begin creating a new neural pathway, which eventually will override the current habit.
*Take note* – Just because you’re creating a new route in your brain doesn’t mean that the old one will disappear. Just like a well-trodden path in the woods, the remnants of its use will always be there. The bushes and trees may overgrow and cover it, but it wouldn’t take too much effort to cut them back to reveal the impulses that line the old habit path and find yourself walking down it again.
That’s why you have to make sure the urges of your newly formed habit are well-defined and strong enough to silence out the old ones that will still be there in the background.
The title of this article gives a good clue as to why your ‘new you’ plans have a high potential of not succeeding.
New Years Resolutions.
By making more than one big resolution, you’re inadvertently lowering your chances across the board of succeeding at any of them. But why is this?
“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like a muscle in your arms and legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things. If you want to do something that requires willpower – like going for a run after work – you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day. If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home” (Mark Muraven)
In addition, this also means that if you’re trying to create multiple new big habits all at once – like quitting smoking, going to the gym, cutting out unhealthy snacks – you’ll then have three sources simultaneously using your willpower muscle. Unsurprisingly, it will get tired very quickly and then tap out on you altogether. This will be compounded even further if you’re attempting to cut out certain actions (such as smoking), and its accompanying rewards, completely.
It’s no surprise then that if you leave the house in the morning with every intention of going to the gym, eating only healthy food all day, and committing to not smoking, there’s a good chance you’ll have run-out of your daily dose of willpower for all of them by the time evening comes around. You find yourself skipping out of the gym class you planned to attend, having a cigarette on the way home, and then sitting on the sofa with a ready-meal on your lap and ice-cream ready and waiting in the freezer, wondering where it all went wrong.
The impact of building your willpower muscle is all centred around improving your self-regulatory strength. This internal power is what all new habit building patterns are driven by and subsequently rest upon.
‘When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a burger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think. You get better at learning to regulate their impulses. You learn how to distract yourself from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practised at helping you focus on a goal” (Todd Heatherton)
The impact that a good night sleep will have on your self-regulatory strength and willpower muscle is also a large determining factor, and you can read more about this in my blog post The Benefits of Sleeping for Your Emotional State.
The importance now lies in where exactly you choose to focus and flex that willpower muscle of yours. This decision plays a determining factor in your success rates of converting an old habit to a new one.
Duhigg terms these as identifying your “keystone habits” – and they ‘can influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. By focusing on one pattern, you teach yourself how to reprogramme the other routines in your life aswell’.
One example of this is the habit of an exercise routine:
‘Studies from the past decade examining the impacts of exercise on daily routines. When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. “Exercise spills over….there’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.” (James Prochaska – University of Rhode Island researcher)
As Duhigg goes on to describe, identifying keystone habits is tricky, but are vital because they offer “small wins.” They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious.
This knock-on effect, combined with consciously exercising and strengthening your willpower muscle will result in your self-regulation becoming more disciplined. Once you continue to master that, not only will you be able to start the creation of a new resolution, you’ll be able to sustain it. Furthermore, you’ll be able to see the positive impact in other areas of your life too.
One final thing to remember is that real changing of habits takes work. It can be a hard road to set off on, and you may stumble along the way. You’ll need to persevere to put the effort in, even more so on the days when you don’t feel like it, as that’s when it matters the most.
So How Can You Increase Your Chances of Success This Year?
- Make only ONE big resolution: Find the one main habit that you want to change. Just one. Focus on that to start. If all of your energy and willpower is being put towards it (instead of being shared out between multiple new ones you’re trying to form) then you stand a much higher probability of succeeding at creating and sustaining it. So if you’ve made resolutions, which one are you going to choose?
- Identify your keystone habits: Take some time to reflect on changes you’ve tried to make in the past. What were the habits you changed that you found started to also have the positive-knock on effect to improving some of your other habit patterns? If you can identify this, then you may just have unveiled one of your keystones.
- Be prepared: It takes a conscious effort, hard work and long-term consistency to form a new habit. What are the things that could come up in your days and weeks that could steer you off course? If you can pinpoint these moments, you can prepare in advance for how you are going to handle them before they happen. This will increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to overcome those hurdles when they arise.
- Be kind to yourself: Remember you’re only human. You might slip up now and then and fall back into your old habit, but that doesn’t mean you should completely disregard all of the effort and changes you’ve put in up to that point! Dust yourself off and keep trying. But take a few moments to reflect – what was it that tripped you up? As I mentioned before, perseverence is key, plus continued practise!
- It’s not all about New Year’s Day: If you like the symobolism of the New Year to try something new, then by all means, go for it. But it’s not the only day where you can start on your self-development. There is nothing more special about January 1st than there is of March 26th, August 15th or October 10th. They’re all just days in the year. In fact, it’s probably beneficial in other ways to not plan it for the start of the year. That way you can reduce the extra pressure on yourself of people expecting you not sustain it precisely because it’s a New Year’s resolution. Also, you’re more likely to have a hangover – which can make any new habit that little bit harder to kickstart when you have a head that feels like a bag of mush.
- Read: I would highly recommend having a read of ‘The Power Of Habit’, by Charless Duhigg, as the main points and quotes I’ve written around in this article are taken from his book. It’s easy-to-read and an incredibly practical tool that can support you in forming new habits.
Happy New Year! Let’s see what 2019 has in store for us!
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