Does anyone ever keep resolutions? Is it even worth making resolutions? Can you stop bad habits? Can you change them? How do you start a good habit?
To understand how to change habits or even how to make a resolution, we need to understand a little bit about why habits are formed in the first place. Resolutions, after all, are many times about changing a bad habit or starting a good habit.
According to the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, “Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.”
This allows us to do some basic things over and over again without relearning them every day. Talking, walking, brushing our teeth, combing our hair, putting on our clothes, typing, riding a bicycle, driving a car and any number of activities that are fairly complicated for us to initially learn how to do take up relatively no brain power.
Our brain has stored them in something akin to a script or shortcut used in a computer programs. It saves time and energy to just hit run script rather than going through the process each time.
The way the brain does this, Duhigg explains, is through means of a habit loop and includes a cue, routine and reward. “The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges” and “a habit is born.”
When a habit has been formed the brain doesn’t work as hard. It focuses on more difficult tasks. For the routines the brain is familiar with, the habit will take place on autopilot.
Changing a habit is possible but one must deliberately decide to replace the routine. Duhigg says “habits never really disappear . . . your brain can’t tell the difference between a bad and good habit.”
You get the picture, if you have a bad habit it’s still there waiting. You can make a decision to change your habit, you can wish the habit would go away, you can will it to go away but it is still there.
So, let’s say you have a habit of eating a large cheeseburger and fries and a coke every day for lunch. It is so ingrained that when lunch comes you automatically, leave work at when noon hits, go through the same drive-through and order the same large cheeseburger, fries and coke.
You sit in the parking lot and eat, while enjoying being alone and putting your brain on hold from work. You started the habit for several reasons. You wanted to get alone and away from work for an hour. You wanted something filling that tasted good and would hold you until supper. Your reward was feeling full and satisfied. After having enjoyed a respite, you were ready to go back to work.
What do you do to change the habit? Remember, the cue and reward are going to stay the same. Every day at noon you will get in your car and do the same thing you’ve always done. You have to change the middle part, the routine.
You can go to the same drive-through but change what you order. Order a salad with grilled chicken or even a couple of grilled chicken patties without bread, along with some dipping sauce and a bottled water. You still sit in your car and enjoy the solitude and go back to work refreshed and feeling full and satisfied.
We only need to replace the routine. We may need to readjust our thinking to what we want to order but after several days of doing this, if you have a strong enough desire to change the habit, you will. From then on the brain doesn’t have to think about what to order when you pull up to the drive-through. It automatically knows.
The reason this works, Duhigg says, is that we have created “new neurological routines that overpower those behaviors—if we take control of the habit loop—we can force those bad tendencies in the background.”
The beauty of this is that we can use the habit loop to work for us rather than against us. Obviously, some mental energy on our part is necessary to change the routine. We have to want to change the habit and figure out something to replace the routine we have established that would have the same cue and reward.
Before I began reading Duhigg’s book, I did this unknowingly. I was wanting to stop drinking a certain diet soda because I felt it was bad for me because of the aspartame content. I realized many times I bought a bottle of soda when I went to a Convenience Store to use the restroom.
There was one particular Convenience Store I went to most every day as I was out and about. The feeling that I had to purchase something because I had taken advantage of their facility was one of the culprits in buying the soda. The other was giving myself a treat because I was out doing errands or my daily activities. My reward was the refreshing cold taste.
I decided when I went there I would buy a bottle of artisan water, making sure it was ice cold. This worked to replace the diet soda habit. One key to this, though, was buying an artisan water which seemed like a treat to me.
I had also used this technique, again unbeknownst to me, when I stopped eating candy. The cue was that I ate candy to break up the boredom of my day. The reward was a boost of energy,
A psychologist friend suggested if I was going to stop something I should start something in it’s place. This is essentially the same as replacing the routine of the habit.
I had decided I also wanted to start exercising. By replacing the routine of eating candy with going to the gym to exercise I successfully stopped eating candy. The interesting thing is that when I started exercising more I began cutting out other things such as most all sugar, then white flour, then most grains. Now, eating primarily gluten free.
The cue is the same, breaking up boredom. The reward is the same, a boost of energy. The more I exercise it seems the more I can cut down on what is, for me, the more harmful, addictive foods.
Admittedly, this is a greatly simplified synopsis of what Duhigg says. And I’m not even finished with the book.
Back to something I said at the beginning, all of this is why resolutions rarely ever work. We resolve to stop something without replacing it with a better alternative. We try to short-change all of the habit loop without some forethought into how to change the routine only.
Even though it might take a little bit of thought, try thinking about that resolution you want to make in terms of changing a bad habit into a good one. My advice would be to just focus on one.
The new habit I want to develop this year is to write at least 6,000 words per week on a book that’s burning within me.
Because my day is already full, I’m going to have to find a habit loop that needs to change. I’m thinking it may have to do with what time I get up in the mornings. This is a habit loop that’s going to take some additional time to process.
I’ll let you know how it goes. I promise I will, good or bad.
In the meantime, tell me what habit do you want to change or implement?