No more New Year’s Resolutions: Develop Habits instead!

By Jack Muskat, Ph.D.

Ever wonder why your New Year’s resolutions, made with such earnestness and intent on January 1st, are but a distant memory 30 days later, as you idle at the drive- thru, trying to decide if you should have a diet or regular Coke with your Big Mac Meal. At least you ordered regular sized fries, you say to yourself. Once home, you try to avoid tripping over your treadmill, which now serves as an expensive towel rack. Did you know that 99% of people who diet fail to maintain their weight loss one year later? Or that over 50% of new gym members stop going after 3 months, and that only 20% last the year. As Mark Twain famously quipped: “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

What is going on here? Why do we continually do what’s wrong even when we know what’s right? As a psychologist, I am continually amazed at how quickly patients can identify the cause of their distress, and even come up with sensible solutions. Yet they seem to be unable to reach their goals or even get started. Why do we sabotage our best efforts?

What does it mean to be motivated? Simply, that we like to do what we like to do because it is rewarding. And we avoid what we don’t like to do because it is not. And that is why change, real change is hard. Because we have already wired in the reward circuits for what we like to do and they stubbornly resist change. We enjoy our pleasures and our pleasures take up time. Changing our behaviour forces us to confront what we are already doing and asks us to do something else. We are being asked to trade in something with certain pleasure for something whose outcome is uncertain. Who wants to give up an extra hour of sleep to go for an early morning run? Or take a night school accounting class instead of curling up on the couch with a favourite Netflix show?

Motivational research has shown that most of us fail to achieve our goals for three interrelated reasons: unrealistic expectations, failure to develop routines or habits, and lack of feedback about results. In other words, we don’t know what to do, where to start, or how to reward ourselves for trying. It does little good to tell us to “just take one step at a time”, when we don’t know how big a step to take, in what direction to go, or for how long. No wonder it is easier to just lie down and take a nap.

Thankfully, the research tells us that the key to success is to forget about goals and focus on developing habits and routines. Want to write a book? Start by writing an article? Want to write an article? Start by writing 500 words. Every day. The trick is to break tasks down into their elements and then do them every day. The trick is make the task hard enough that when you complete it you can see your progress, but not too hard so that you give up. If you develop habits and routines and stick with them, your goals will come.

It typically takes six weeks to learn a new routine and only a week to lose it. Now neuroscience research can tell us why. In The Power of Habit (2012), New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg describes the underlying brain processes that are involved when we try to change our habits and routines. Willpower is not enough. Rather, we need to understand the neural “habit loops” that underpin and reward our behaviour. And that is why change is so hard to establish and maintain. It is not that we don’t know what to do; it is that we don’t have reliable information about what we are doing, and more importantly, when we are doing it. And we often have no way of capturing it and learning from it.

Don’t be discouraged. With today’s wearable technology (Fitbits, Apple Watch), we can create customized programs to remind us what and when to eat, monitor our sleep, measure our Heart Rate and Blood Pressure. We can join virtual communities of like-minded people for support, and can track our progress with phone apps.

My wish to everyone for 2019 is to start thinking about creating new habits and routines and watch the results slowly accumulate. The race goes to the steady and sure.

Jack Muskat, Ph.D., is a Toronto based organizational and clinical psychologist, writer and lecturer with over 25 years consulting and business experience with individuals and organizations. Dr. Muskat is an acknowledged expert on issues relating to organizational culture and leadership, as well as mental health and emotional wellbeing. He is currently director of psychology at the BeWell Health Clinic, a multidisciplinary health and psychological wellness practice in downtown Toronto.

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