The year is still young and there goes your resolution to stop smoking, start exercising, work more productively or just balance your life better. And so you join the bandwagon of those who claim, “I never make New Year resolutions because they don’t just work!”
And that’s probably true. Yet truer still is the fact that our habits are wired into our psyche so deeply that we perform some of them unconsciously. Getting rid of negative ones requires a complete overhaul, if you like, and then a rewiring with a new habit. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, writes, “Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t occur…Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”
According to Duhigg, every habit has a loop that consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. To understand your habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. For example, you may find that you have the very good intention of going for a run every evening. However, the moment you arrive home, you plonk yourself on the sofa and turn on the TV. Pretty soon, your good intentions are forgotten as you get caught up in another Mexican soap.
In this case, your cue might be getting home and opening your front door. That cue triggers thoughts of relaxation and fun. The cue also signals your routine which is kicking off your shoes, reaching for the remote and collapsing into the sofa to watch television. Your reward might be the feeling of relief and reprieve from a long day’s work. However, once you make the resolution to go for the run, your reward might be short-lived as after you have watched the soap, you find that you are wracked by feelings of guilt and discontentment.
I suppose most of us would agree that slumping in front of the television is harder than going for an evening jog. If that is the case, your cues and routines for a new habit have to be rigorous and your rewards, just as compelling. Start by creating cues to run. For instance, hanging up that dress you are hoping to fit into in front of your wardrobe where you see it every morning when you wake up. That should trigger you to pack your track suit and shoes into your gym bag.
Another cue could be to change into your running shoes at the end of your work day, when your motivation to run is still strong. All of these actions are sending messages to your brain to prepare to run. Next, create a different routine that bypasses the sofa. Finally, reward yourself with a long soak in the bath or a shower that still prompts feelings of relaxation and relief. Try and stick with this programme for at least one month, which is how long it takes to change some habits. Make sure your rewards for any new habits are compelling. The moment an activity becomes a drudge, the less likely you are to stay motivated.
There are other ways to trick your brain into practising a new habit such as making things difficult for your old habit. For instance if you are likely to wind down your day with a drink of alcohol and want to quit, avoid stocking any alcohol in your house. When you go looking for it, it won’t be there.
Don’t forget the reward though. Perhaps in its place, put in some hot chocolate that will give you the same relaxed feeling without the hangover in the morning. If you are an impulse spender who now wants to save, put a standing order into a savings account in a bank or product that is not easily accessible. You could also reduce your withdrawal limit for ATMs as well as keep your debit and credit cards at home instead of in your wallet.
Finally, enlist the help of a partner. As human beings tend to be social, most of us prefer working with someone else towards a common goal as that keeps us accountable. You can change your habits. It’s still early in the year. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.