Only 8% of New Years resolutions stick.
Confession: For years, I was a frustrated member of the 92%. And you probably know exactly how it feels on New Years Day to set a resolution to break your bad habit. Or maybe the first of each month. Or maybe every Monday.
I experienced the unfortunate cycle of quitting and “failing” to quit for years when it came to smoking cigarettes.
What made the difference? Well, I applied my knowledge about human behavior and the brain to myself and changed my approach for good. Here’s some insights to help you make 2018 your best year yet.
Fighting against Habit
To make a resolution stick you have to change. For the brain, change is danger. Change requires neural rewiring and that creates discomfort. Even the prospect of change can create significant psychological discomfort.
The effort to abstain from bad habits compels you to do them more because abstention feels bad. Ergo, you will fight to feel good.
Smoking, laziness, boredom, compulsive eating, overspending – these are all default behaviors based on habitual brain wiring to give you what will make you feel good.
To change we need to create new ways of thinking which trigger new neural pathways, which lead to new default modes of behavior.
With deliberate effort new habits become the default schema for your brain.
Reframe the challenge into something you GAIN.
- I need to lose weight = I want to gain strength, endurance and flexibility.
- I need to quit smoking = I want to run three miles without wheezing.
- I need to stop overspending = I want financial flexibility and freedom.
To learn is to be human.
We begin to learn from the minute we are born.
Therefore, challenging yourself to learn something new flows with the grain of human nature; challenging yourself to lose something you like goes against human nature. Use the word “learn” to counter the effects of the stop language of resolutions. You are not quitting smoking, you are learning how to be a non-smoker.
The Neuroscience Behind Habits
Habits live in the most stubborn of our brain structures: the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia stores useful skills and habits: putting our socks on before our shoes or effortlessly driving our usual route to work.
The basal ganglia can also be a curse: it can cause you to habitually drive home from work along your normal route when you had meant to stop at the grocery store. It contains all of the skills and memories we need to function on a daily basis but could also potentially contribute to keeping you in a rut.
To learn to tie your shoes takes a tremendous amount of initial brainpower, but once learned it consumes very little. As we master these small routines, dopamine rewards us with feelings of pleasure. So we are perpetually rewarded for maintaining our habits, good and bad alike.
When you try to change a habit you activate the prefrontal cortex, a very active part of the brain that helps us focus our thoughts; this requires a lot of conscious mental energy.
The prefrontal cortex is connected to the emotional center of our brain. A firestorm of emotions (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety, etc) is triggered when the brain senses change. When you think, “I want to change this habit” your brain kicks into protection mode and tries to fiercely protect the habits it has grown to love.
Hopefully this insight will help you if you wake up in February and you haven’t made any progress into your resolutions.
Instead of giving up completely, figure out what you really want to do differently. Frame the goal into something that you are gaining (vs. losing) and learning (vs. stopping).
Respect your brain. It will need some time to incorporate the new behavior into your life.
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