It really is that time of year again, isn’t it? You know, the time when we’ve made all those New Year resolutions and now we’re finding them hard to keep.
No matter that we know full-well that we want to stop smoking, or drinking, or we want to exercise more, or be generally calmer, kinder, happier, more saint-like people, our human fallibility overcomes us, and quite soon, probably around now, we find we’re just simply back where we were before.
Why exactly is it that bad habits are so hard to break – and good habits hard to make?
Well, to begin with there’s a little thing called the brain – and its neurons love a well-trod path.
Deviate from that path – the double-shot latte at 10am, for example, or the hidden nail-biting indulgence just before bed, and anxiety sets in.
Scientists believe it takes three weeks to break – or make – a habit, and they’ve also found that people who complicate their habit-breaking rules are far less likely to succeed.
Also – and here’s the reason why so many New Year resolutions fall down – our brains and bodies need to be on the same page – fully united in the habit-breaking goal. Not easy when Christmas and New Year have left us all exhausted, surrounded by relatives, and children on school holidays, not to mention anxious about money as well!
The beginning of January is often not the best time to break a habit. A better New Year’s resolution would be to say that on February 1 you’re going to start your new regime, and give yourself a month to get prepared.
So what can you do to help yourself stick to a goal?
The first thing the habit-experts suggest is to break ONE habit at a time, so no multi-tasking – taking up exercise, giving up smoking, drinking and swearing all at once. Pick one, and make the rules simple.
Rather than telling yourself you’re going to exercise four times a week and do several activities, concentrate on something really achievable and easy – a 30-minute walk twice a week, for instance.
One thing the brain does need, however, is a replacement habit. I gave up coffee eight weeks ago, and replaced it with something just a little more exciting than my normal weak black tea – Earl Grey with a dash of sugar or an iced tea or a chai. I couldn’t say it was easy, but it did work. I also decided this year I’m going to try and pace the changes I want in my life throughout the year instead of enthusiastically dumping them on one little day.
Our New Year’s resolutions often set us up for failure, partly because, as Moshe Bar, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Mass. General and Harvard Medical School explains in the Boston Globe, there’s more to the issue than just willpower.
“Our brains seek to be rewarded constantly, those rewards – manifested as pleasure and positive mood – are made up of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. Those molecules stock the shelves of the best opium den in the world, the one right between our ears, and we’re all hooked on them.”
To summarize, neurotransmitters are nature’s trick for encouraging us to do what is supposedly best for us, and every time we achieve a goal, we go to our ‘happy’ place. However, the little pleasure centre in our brain is also activated by drugs, alcohol, food and sex, to name just a few. Fortunately the pleasure centre is also activated by exercise, meditation, creativity, singing and movement, to also name a few.
Hence the need to replace one habit with another, and even that, say the experts, should be done with a plan. If you want to replace watching TV with going for a run for instance, and you are experiencing a lot of inner resistance, try simply wearing your running shoes in the house for half-an-hour in the evening… walk about the house instead of watching television. Give your brain the chance to get used to the idea.
And use the SMART acronym so widely employed in business: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Trackable. It really works.
So what do you do if it’s just about now that you’re feeling despondent – the memory of all those best intentions being put firmly back in their box, and if you’re really hard on yourself a little balloon in your brain going ‘failure… I knew you couldn’t do it’?
You can still do it. Just prioritize your resolutions. Take one, make a plan, replace a habit, don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself a few weeks to introduce your brain to the idea that it’s going to work with you not against you on this one, and start again on February 1.
Happy habit breaking or making…