Resolutions rarely work; just like “I’ll quit on Monday” rarely works. In fact, according to a University of Scranton survey, about 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only 8% are successful. I’ve been one of the unsuccessful 8% so many times I decided to bag the resolution thing years ago. Here’s what I learned about why resolutions and Monday morning quitting have such a small chance of sticking for the long haul.
My confession: I’m an ex-smoker who, for years, quit every Monday and every New Year’s Day. I quit smoking so many times that the most excellent quitter became part of my identity. It took understanding how my brain works to finally kick the habit. But here were some of my very human, very common mistakes over the years:
Motivated by Should
Propelled by Stopping
Fighting against Habit
Motivated by Should
My motivation for quitting was always grounded in “should” versus “want.” I should because my friends and family keep guilting me. I should because I smell like an ashtray. I should because it’s really cold outside. Also, I should because the daily dose of cognitive dissonance – the internal discomfort that ensues when you have inconsistent beliefs and behaviors – feels terrible, i.e. I enjoy spreading the word about how Crossfit, yoga, and healthy eating has changed my life and I smell like an ashtray.
The bottom line and what to do about it: It’s very difficult to stop doing something unhealthy that feels good when the desire to quit is grounded in what other people think you should do. To stop, the decision has to be yours and yours only. So only commit to doing something when you are ready for it, not when everyone else thinks you should be.
Propelled by Stopping
When you focus on stopping or quitting or not doing something that has become habitual (e.g. eating a lot of food, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, spending money, etc.) you fight your natural, human urge to gain over lose. As humans, we are loss-adverse: it hurts us more to lose something than to gain something (e.g. we find more pain in losing 50 dollars than we do gaining 50 dollars). We will therefore white-knuckle our terrible habits when they are framed as things we need to lose.
The bottom line and what to do about it: To avoid the white-knuckling, re-frame the challenge into something you can potentially gain. For example:
I need to stop eating so much/I need to lose weight = I want to gain strength and endurance to compete in that race/keep up with my kids/[fill in the blank]
I need to quit smoking = I want to run three miles without stopping to catch my breath/I want to live a long life/I want white teeth.
I need to stop spending money = I want to learn to have financial flexibility and freedom.
Utilise the word “learn” as much as possible as well. It helps oppose the stop language of resolutions. When we are faced with a challenge to learn rather than stop it’s more appealing because it is aligned with human nature. We are well-practiced in the art of learning. We start the minute we are born. Our development counts on it and all of the systems we are part of (e.g., school, work, social systems) require us to learn.Thus, challenging yourself to learn something new flows with how we are built whereas the challenge to stop doing something you like (your bad habits) goes against the grain of human nature. We learn, we don’t stop.Learning new habits is no different. You are not quitting smoking, you are learning how to be a non-smoker.
Fighting against Habit
For a resolution to work it will involve changing your behaviour. Easier said than done. Change is a psychologically taxing endeavour for our brains because it involves re-wiring. Even the mere prospect of change can create significant psychological discomfort (think about the days leading up to your “change” date).
Smoking is a habit. Sitting on the couch after work instead of working out is a habit. Eating food when you’re not hungry is a habit. Spending money that you don’t have is a habit. Habitual behaviour is created by thought patterns, which in turn create neural pathways and memories, which eventually become the default basis for your behaviour when you’re faced with a choice or a decision. To try and simply “not do something” will actually make you want to do it more because you’re not changing anything, you’re fighting against the brain flow you’ve created for yourself.Change actually requires creating completely new ways of thinking, which trigger new neural pathways.
On top of that, habits live in the most stubborn part of our brain structures, the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia allows us to put on our socks before we put on our shoes, drive our usual route to work without thinking, and to perk up our ears when we hear the music of the ice cream truck. It’s both a blessing and a curse. The same system causes you to automatically drive home from work along your normal route when you had promised to swing by your friend’s house first. In it reside our ingrained memories (which can afflict us with cognitive errors), facts and information we need to get on with our daily functioning (which can lock us into ruts), participatory traditions (which can make us stubbornly resist change), and structured routines (which can compromise our potential for peak performance). Learning something as simple as tying your shoes takes a tremendous amount of initial brainpower, but once you get the hang of it, it consumes very little. As we master routines, dopamine rewards us with feelings of pleasure or avoidance of pain, helping us perpetuate the routine. So not only are you dealing with a stubborn structure in the brain, you are being perpetually rewarded for maintaining your habits, good and bad alike.
By contrast, when you try to add or change a habit you activate the prefrontal cortex, a very active part of the brain that requires a lot of conscious mental energy. This part of the brain is also connected to the limbic system, which is the emotional centre of the brain. When faced with changing a habit,a firestorm of emotion (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety, etc.) rains down on us, and the comfort of status quo – i.e. keeping the habit in place – becomes a very appealing option.
The bottom line and what to do about it: Change is brutal and triggers psychological and emotional discomfort. Recognise that you will naturally want to hold onto your own personal status quo. Change takes time, discipline and some basic TLC (if/when you have a lapse). Psychologists suggest the following first steps for creating positive habits:
- Cues: Since habits are triggered by cues (triggers or signals that tell you to act in acertain way) identify cues that will help you meet your goal. Cues are often centered around location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding an action. For example, if you typically find yourself noshing on junk at your desk every afternoon at 3pm identify a 3pm cue that helps you learn the new habit (e.g. get up from your desk and go for a 10 minute walk, chug a bottle of water and set a 15 minute timer before you put anything else in your mouth).
- Routine: Be very specific about the steps you will take to form the habit. For example, if you are working on gaining strength, endurance and flexibility, schedule the times you will do your chosen exercise throughout the day and the foods you will be eating that day.
- Reward: In order to embed the new behaviour into a habit, reward yourself with something related to the habit. Perhaps it’s recognising the endorphin rush after a workout or the taste of a healthy breakfast following a workout. If you anticipate and associate the reward with the action, your brain eventually craves the reward, which reinforces the habit.
Hopefully this insight will console you if it’s February and you’ve already broken your resolutions. Rather than give up, figure out what you really want to do differently, frame the goal into something that you are gaining and learning and respect that your brain will need some time to incorporate this new habit into your life.