Following on from our first blog Why Old Habits Die Hard, in which we talk about why 80-90% of New Year's Resolutions fail, part two looks at the practicalities of exactly how you can successfully go about embedding a new habit. If you haven't read the first part, it might be worth checking it out here when you have a spare 5 minutes.
Essentially, to help a new year's resolution stick, you need to work with (and not against) the lump of grey and white matter nestled between your ears. To do that, you need to maximise the release of happy chemicals in your brain when developing a new habit - if it feels good, you're more likely to stick with it, and chemicals, such as dopamine, endorphins and serotonin will help do just that. It will ensure you have the motivation to keep going long enough for it to become embedded in your basal ganglia (which can take anything from 3 weeks to 3 months). Below are our nine tops tips, grounded in science, to help you make your new year's resolution stick.
SET A GOAL: First things first, you need an end goal and a reason to want to achieve that goal - a sense of purpose. You'll need that, to tap into your willpower. If you don't believe in your goal, you will have failed before you even start. Sometimes it helps to keep a record of the change you want to make and why you're seeking to make it - that way, you can remind yourself why, when your willpower is wavering.
It is important to identify the right goal. Your goal needs to be built around introducing a new habit. People often make the mistake of setting themselves the goal of losing weight, but that is in fact a desired outcome and not a habit. If you want to lose weight and be healthy, you need to adopt new, healthier habits, such as eating healthier foods and/or exercising more, as well as potentially ditching old, unhealthy, habits. That's not to say that you shouldn't have desired outcomes too, but it's really important to actually embrace the habit itself and be positive about it.
START SMALL: Whilst you may wish to go from being a couch potato to exercising five times a week, if you go all out too soon, not only will you likely injure yourself, but you'll also quit before you've even got started. Why not make the most of the body's natural chemicals that will help you persevere. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way and is resistant to change (that probably won't come as a surprise). Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change, or thinking-pattern change, will automatically be resisted.
By setting small incremental goals you'll benefit from bursts of dopamine each time you strive for that goal. Also, when it comes to exercise, it's worth noting that you'll get a rush or endorphins and endocannabinoids (responsible for a sense of euphoria) when you complete a tough exercise session. However, the trigger point for endorphin release increases over time, meaning you have to keep pushing harder to get the same rush (hence why exercise can be addictive). If you go too hard too soon, whilst you'll get a burst of euphoric chemicals rushing through you when you finish the initial session, if you then have to reel the intensity back, you won't get that same rush next time round, which could derail your entire plan. Far better to increase things incrementally and keep getting little bursts of happy chemicals that will encourage you to stick to your new routine and help you form a long-term habit.
PRAISE YOURSELF: It is important to celebrate milestones when you achieve them. Whilst exercising 5 times a week might be your ultimate goal, if you have not exercised regularly before, completing three lots of 10 minute timed exercise in a week deserves a pat on the back. You'll get a boost of serotonin, known as the self-esteem neurotransmitter, every time you do pause to reflect on your accomplishments, which helps reinforce the habit over the longer term. In addition to giving yourself a well deserved pat on the back, you can also bolster serotonin release through exercise (yes, the benefits of exercise are pretty far reaching), diet (certain foods, such as eggs, contain serotonin) and sunlight.
HELP YOURSELF Don't make adopting a new habit harder than it needs to be. You may have the best intentions in the world, but if the old habit you are looking to break is within arm's reach, you're setting yourself up to fail. In Shawn Achor's book the Happiness Advantage, he describes his attempts to start playing the guitar again, for a period of 21 days. From having the guitar in the corner in its case, and the TV remote perching enticingly on the arm of the sofa, it was clear the TV would win, and it did, 19 out of the 21 days. How did he flip it round? By making the new habit the easiest option: taking the batteries out of the remote and placing them in the adjacent room, whilst simultaneously taking the guitar out of its case and placing it on a stand in the middle of the room. Suddenly, playing the guitar was by far the easiest option, and he played it every day for the 21 days.
Think about how you can reduce or eliminate hurdles to your new habit and potentially increase the hurdles to the habits you wish to break. If you're looking to adopt a new diet for example, erase the Dominos pizza speed dial from your phone, throw away all the take away menus, and don't buy unhealthy snacks; buy healthy food instead; you'll have to put much more effort into resorting to your old habit, which means your new habit should win. As a former chemist, I'd liken it to lowering the activation energy required to do the new habit, whilst increasing the activation energy required to do the old habit you're trying to ditch.
MAKE A HABIT OF IT: It's a little like the chicken and egg - which came first? Habits love routine (as the researchers at MIT found), so if you can pursue a new habit at a similar time of day or in a similar environment (the trigger), you'll essentially make the new habit stick more easily. Once it's become a little more like second nature, you can start experimenting with different environments, people, times of day etc, which will help engrain the habit further. Essentially, the more neural pathways you can form, linking the new behaviour to positive emotions and experiences in different contexts, the more likely it is that the habit will stick.
If you are trying to overcome a bad habit of flying off the handle when you feel stressed, make a habit of taking some deep breaths before saying anything, which will help lower the circulating cortisol in your brain and help you act more rationally using your pre-frontal cortex (your human brain), rather than your monkey brain.
DON'T STRESS ABOUT IT: It's worth noting that we revert to old habits (good or bad) under stress - it's part of our fight or flight response. Circulating cortisol, released as part of our stress response, impairs our executive functioning (in the pre-frtonal cortex), which favours our brain relying on the habits stored in our basal ganglia (housed in the primitive monkey part of our brain) instead. Forming a new habit requires executive functioning, specifically the Infralimbic Cortex (part of the pre-frontal cortex), to strive for new goals over old habits, which then helps form new habits over time.
Learning a new habit when stressed, is a bit like trying to drive up a steep icy road without snow tyres - you're not going to get very far. Which is a problem, if you're looking to form a new healthy habit to combat stress. The good news is that exercising lowers circulating levels of cortisol and also has a dampening effect on future stress, thanks to the production of GABA (an anxiety suppressing molecule). If you can muster enough will power, to power through the first few sessions, that's one new habit that might just stick. Taking some deep breaths (from you belly/diaphragm) is also pretty handy.
FIND A (LIKE-MINDED) FRIEND: Social support is a big predictor of success, when it comes to forming new habits. Find the right friend and it could boost your chances of adopting a new habit enormously. Conversely, the wrong friend could be the equivalent of the little devil on your shoulder, urging you to revert to bad habits, and dragging you down with them. Research by Harvard University found that social influence has a dramatic impact on our habits and behaviours. You are 61% more likely to smoke if you have a direct connection to someone who smokes. If a friend becomes obese, it increases your chances of becoming obese by 57%. Over time, our diets and exercise habits mimic those of our friends. If your best friend is very active, it nearly triples your chances of having high levels of physical activity. Hence why it is important to choose your friends wisely, when looking to introduce a new habit - it could make or break your chances of success.
BE PATIENT: Forming a new habit takes time and sometimes we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Sometimes those expectations might lead to frustration, such as: "why am I still craving the old habit?" and "why has the new habit not embed itself yet?"; or, it may be that you're not seeing the immediate results you were hoping to see, from a new diet or exercise regime. With exercise, people can be quick to jump on the fact that they haven't lost any weight. The key is to remember that there are many things happening behind the scenes: you might be replacing fat with muscle (muscle is denser than fat, so you might still be getting leaner even if your scales tell you otherwise), your energy levels may have increased, you might be sleeping better (all benefits of regular exercise). With other habits, such as learning a new skill or behaviour, it takes time, but you will get there - it takes time to rewire the brain!
DON'T BEAT YOURSELF UP: We're only human and we're all prone to have good days and some not so good days. It is important not to beat yourself up, if you have a bad day. Don't see a bad day as a failure and a reason to throw the towel in; think of it instead as a set-back on the road to success. Don't quit, but use it instead as an opportunity to learn why you faltered in the first place. Were you having a bad day at the office? Did you receive some bad news? Was a bad habit within easy reach? What could you do differently to help yourself next time?
You can apply the above to learning a new skill or even taking on a new project or role at work - the principles are essentially the same. The key is to remember that new habits and behaviours take time to form, which is why old habits die hard - a positive mindset and perseverance is crucial to success.
A number of our workshops (such as Breaking Bad (habits) and the Art of Resilience) are designed to help people break out of bad habits and develop new, healthier habits which boost wellbeing, productivity, creativity and success. If you'd like to find out more, please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.