New Year’s resolutions can be tricky. When we vow to get back in the gym, lose those extra 10 pounds, pay down debt, get that or get that promotion at work, we do so with the best of intentions. Inevitably by the end of January, however, these resolutions have fallen by the way side and we’ve returned to our old ways. Why are we so good at goal setting but so bad at goal achieving?
In “The Power of Habit”, New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg describes habit formation as a three-part process called the “habit loop”, which starts with a cue or trigger that tells the brain to begin the behavior, followed by the behavior itself. Finally, there’s the reward, something that the brain likes that solidifies the formation of the habit loop.
For example, if you’re struggling to lose weight, your late night snacking habit could be part of the problem. Scrolling through the DVR to select a new TV show to watch could trigger the brain to crave ice cream, so you head to the kitchen and grab a pint of your favorite guilty pleasure. The feeling of relaxation you enjoy while eating this ice cream and watching TV is the reward that solidifies the habit’s formation.
According to Duhigg, the brain has to consciously make new decisions to break a habit. It’s only when this new behavior becomes automatic that the prefrontal cortex, where rational decisions are formed, can shut down and the basal ganglia, where memories, emotions and pattern recognition are housed, will take over. According to Duhigg, that’s why we can carry on a conversation or listen to the radio when performing certain complex behaviors, like parallel parking or brushing our teeth, because these behaviors have become automatic
So what does this all have to do with New Year’s resolutions? Understanding our brain’s reward system can help us change our behavior. It is possible to achieve your New Year’s resolutions– you just need the right plan of attack. Here are some tips help you get started:
It’s great to have a long-term goal, like losing 50 pounds, but achieving that goal quickly can be tough. Worse, any small set back, like slipping back into those late-night ice cream habits, will feel like a huge defeat. While it’s great to use your New Year’s resolution as a catalyst for bigger changes, the American Psychological Association recommends setting small, attainable goals you can achieve. For weight loss, for example, this could be breaking your bigger goal down into smaller, weekly milestones.
Unhealthy behaviors develop slowly over time. Follow a similar approach to changing them. Returning to our weight loss example, think about the different behavioral changes that go into losing weight. These could include working out at the gym five times per week, hitting a daily step goal on your pedometer, swapping fries for salad with your lunch, or cutting down on portion size. Taking on all these changes at once is a lot. Pick one thing and make it your focus for the week, such as getting more steps or hitting the gym. Once you’ve got that behavior solidly in place, build upon it with additional positive changes.
Share your experiences with your family and friends– they’re here to help! Create a support group and reinforce each other’s new lifestyle choices.