January 17 is Ditch Your New Year's Resolution Day. Whether this date has any scientific basis, I'm not sure, but it does seem true that more than 80% of people who make New Year's Resolutions fail to keep them. When we make resolutions we usually aim to change our habits. According to Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, if we understand the nature of habits and we follow certain steps, we can stick to our resolutions and improve our lives.
We all have habits, good and bad. We probably don't realize, however, that habits control fully 40% of what we do. We develop habits, which Duhigg describes as "choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day,"(xvii) so our brains can operate efficiently. Consider driving a car. When we first learn to drive, we have to concentrate to remember a whole set of different steps – choices. As we practice, we gradually stop having to remember to put the key in the ignition, put our foot on the brake, turn on the car, check the mirrors, and shift into drive. All these steps become second nature, a habit. That process definitely economizes our brain's activity – think of the mental energy it would take if our whole lives we had to focus on each of those actions every time we got in a car.
Once we've developed the driving habit, whenever we get in a car, we start doing things automatically. We are following a cue, getting in the driver's seat of a car. A cue represents the first part of every habit's three parts, the cue, the routine, and the reward. All the steps to starting a car represent the routine. The reward is the car engine starting. These three components that make up a "habit loop."
We probably recognize that some of our habits are more tenacious than others. Habits gain this tenacity when we develop a craving, when we start to anticipate the reward at the cue stage of the loop. When this happens, if we receive the cue, but don't receive the reward, we crave it and get antsy or worse because we haven't gotten what our brain expects. For example, many of us have become so attached to our digital lives that when we hear the ping signaling a new email or social media post (the cue), we struggle to resist looking at our phones (the routine) so we can get the adrenalin rush associated with the message (the craving/reward).
When we make resolutions, we're either trying to "break" a bad habit (like snacking) or trying to establish a new good habit (like exercising). If we want to change a habit, we have to begin by isolating the components of the habit loop. First, we identify the routine. Then to discover what we truly crave, we should experiment with different rewards. Duhigg gives an example of how he went to the cafeteria and bought a cookie every afternoon which he ate while talking with colleagues. He begins his reformation by trying other rewards besides a cookie: buying and consuming an apple, a donut or a cup of coffee; taking a walk outside; buying a candy bar but eating it at his desk; going to someone else's desk to gossip for a few minutes. After each reward, we should record our feelings or just write down the first three words that come to mind. Then we should set an alarm for fifteen minutes later and see if we still crave the original reward, in his case, the cookie. Through this process, Duhigg came to realize that he craved the socializing he did while he ate the cookie, not the cookie.
To fully change a habit, however, we also need to understand what triggers it, the cue. To do this, as soon as we feel the craving, we should answer the following questions:
Where am I?
What time is it?
What's my emotional state?
Who else is around?
What action preceded the craving?
As we repeat this exercise, patterns will emerge that reveal the cue. Duhigg realized that he felt the craving at about the same time every afternoon, so he set an alarm for 3:30, at which point he would get up from his desk and go visit someone. As he practiced the new routine, he developed a new habit, one that did not involve eating a sugar and fat-laden snack, but which satisfied his actual craving for social interaction.
To launch a new habit successfully, we also need to leverage the power of the habit loop. With a new habit, we have to create the cue. For example, if we want to exercise regularly, research has repeatedly shown that we are more likely to do so if we lay out our exercise clothes in advance. They become our cue. Then we need to choose a reward (preferably one that doesn't negate the positive effects of the work out), perhaps a tasty, but healthy smoothie; maybe a relaxing hot shower; maybe recording our workouts on a chart or calendar so we visualize our progress. In the case of exercising, the sense of accomplishment for having worked out may prove sufficient reward as may the endorphins generated by physical exertion. It doesn't matter what it is, you just need something to look forward to. When we're tempted to skip our exercise, focusing on the reward should allow us overcome our laziness. Over time, we will develop a new habit.
In addition to understanding the habit loop, Duhigg shares several other factors that help us form new habits. First, we need to recognize the power of "small wins." We're more likely to be successful if we start with manageable, specific, simple steps. If we're exercising, don't commit to daily 90-minute strenuous workouts immediately. Start with a level we can reasonably fit into our schedule and do without too much strain. We'll feel accomplished when we meet our goals which will spur us to keep going, and possibly push a little harder. Related to small wins are keystone habits, habits which when adopted have a ripple effect. Exercise, for example, even once a week, leads people to eat better, be more productive as well as more patient and spend less on credit cards.
Probably not surprisingly, believing that we can change is critical. Without faith in our potential for change, our efforts are doomed. Instilling a belief in the possibility of change is a big part of why Alcoholics Anonymous, which Duhigg describes as a "giant machine for changing habit loops" (65), works. It also works because it creates a community that supports people as they try to change. In AA, the group plays a powerful role in developing and reinforcing belief in the possibility of change, in part because people observe others who model success in overcoming addiction. Groups (as small as just one other person) also help us stay motivated and on course. We all know, for example, that if we commit to go to the gym with someone else, we're more likely to go.
Finally, we need to harness our willpower. Willpower, like a muscle, gets stronger when we use it regularly. To do this, we need to anticipate when we'll be tempted to stray and develop a plan. If our resolution is to exercise regularly, we need to identify when we think we might be tempted to skip. We need to create a plan that enables us to overcome that temptation – for example, setting an alarm so we can exercise before family breakfast on Saturday or having our workout buddy text us to go to the gym even without her. Plus, in all likelihood, we will occasionally fail in our resolve and having a plan to deal with our lapse enables us more easily to re-establish the habit loop. As we think about sticking to our resolutions, leveraging willpower represents the most important component of our success. As we practice it, willpower itself becomes a habit, enabling us better to resist temptation generally. In addition, when we think about habits and our children, building willpower should be one of our highest priorities.
Duhigg's overarching message is that our habits are not our "destiny." It takes work to change, but "If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be." (273) This understanding of habits is important for us as adults, and it's equally important that our children understand it. The sooner they start developing good habits, the more success and happiness they'll find in life. So, if you made resolutions on New Year's, hopefully these insights will help you beat the odds and stick to them. If not, there's no time like today to start down the road of self-improvement.