New Years day has passed and many of us make resolutions and plan to change our habits. You may have great plans early in the year to become the new ‘you’ and then within a few days or weeks you find yourself reverting to habit. Why do we find it so hard to keep those resolutions we took on so eagerly and go back to our old habits?
You may hear advice about calling it goal setting or making specific, measurable targets like ‘I will go for a run once a week’ but it’s still hard to change and that’s partially because there isn’t a ‘golden bullet’ or a ‘one size fits all’ answer. It depends on what you’re trying to change, how different it is, how committed you are and how much energy you devote to it.
However, there is some reliable research about habit formation to give you some valuable insights into steps you can take to becoming the new you.
In the simplest sense habits are learned behaviours that have moved from our conscious, cortical thinking brain to our unconscious basal ganglia, responsible for repetitive actions and habits and they are very persistent – which is both valuable and unhelpful depending on your requirements.
The timing for changing habits is important itself. Why do we do something difficult and new at the start of the year when we’re not at our most resilient? We’re feeling the post Christmas blues, there’s leftovers still to eat, we’re out of synch with our normal habits and worst of all (in the Northern hemisphere at least) it’s cold and wet and our natural inclination is to stay indoors and keep warm. Changing habits involves lots of conscious, cortical, energy consuming thinking whereas sticking with our habits is unconscious and less energy intensive – maybe saving those resolutions for spring when you’re more motivated and have more energy could work better?
What else do we know about habits? You might have heard it only takes 21 days to break a habit but sadly it’s a myth because we could probably keep up a new habit for 21 days. The most up to date research suggests anything from I8 days to 254 days to change a habit – that could be up to 8 months. The average is 66 days so that’s at least 2 months before you can be confident you’ve created a new habit.
Our underlying habits are apparently always there ready to take over. Habits don’t seem to disappear – they just become less ‘habitual’. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit has a Golden Rule of Habits – “You can’t extinguish a bad habit; you can only change it.” You may need to be kinder to yourself if your old habits occasionally resurface.
Before you can break a habit you need to recognise it is one – and understand what drives it. Psychologists suggest most habits have 3 ingredients: a stimulus, the habitual response and a reward. It’s possible to change any or all of the elements of a habit but it seems the most effective way is to change only the response. For example, if the stimulus of your morning coffee means you always have a biscuit too, you get the reward of feeling boosted by the caffeine and sugar. You can keep the stimulus of the coffee, change your response of opening the biscuit tin to selecting a piece of fruit and you still have the same reward but it’s healthier. It can take a little bit of digging to spot the stimuli, responses and rewards but it’s well worth it.
With some habits changing the environment can make it easier to change the response; eg if there is fruit in your cupboard but not biscuits it’s easier to eat fruit. We are strongly driven by our environment because of habits we’ve formed without even being aware of them. Look out for your own habits and see what you can alter in the environment that makes it easier to change. Also keep an eye out for habits that you create because you’re in a new environment because they are easier to sustain and possibly transfer. For instance we recently moved to a 3rd floor flat and have created the habit of using the stairs. I am now using this habit at my new fourth floor office space – I don’t even think about the lift until I’m up two and a half flights, by which time it’s too late.
On a recent webinar we discussed changing to outcome focused language to become more persuasive. Someone asked how you retrain your brain to stop saying negative things such as ‘Don’t forget to …’ and replace it with ‘Remember to…’. First you need to pay attention and notice your language habits. Do you use ‘Don’t hesitate to contact me’ in letters/ emails? It’s easier to change written habits first because you can review before you send, so make that your starting point. Plan to work on one verbal habit at a time rather than changing everything you say. Your colleagues, friends and family are possibly even more aware than you about what you say so you could ask for feedback. Reward yourself with a mental pat on the back when you replace a ‘Don’t’ with a ‘Do…’
Rewards are important to change habits or you might reduce some pain. My children regularly used to forget their school lunches and my punishment was to have to take the sandwiches to school, or feel guilty because I couldn’t. By simply saying ‘Remember your sandwiches’ I removed much of the discomfort and inconvenience. Very soon I was saying ‘Do xyz…’ instead of ‘Don’t do abc…’ at work too which was a simple way to be more influential.
Whatever you do to change your habits remember there are physical changes going on in your brain that require energy and effort – it’s neuroplasticity at work – which is not quick and easy but it’s entirely possible. Good luck with your new habits.