The new year is behind us, and that means a reasonable number of us are either quietly shirking away from the resolutions of the new year, or working hard to maintain the momentum of a habit lost or gained. We’ve decided to look at the science of habits, and explains why it can be so tricky to keep resolution and change habitual behaviour.
According to the University of Sydney, around half of us make a New Year’s Resolution, most commonly related to health and fitness. Why is it so easy to fall back into old habits, and how can you find the motivation to keep going?
Habits are more ingrained than we ever thought
Fresh research from Duke University in North Carolina (USA) has shown us a new side of habits and addiction – it’s not just the way we think about our foibles that sets us up for success or failure, but also the changes to our brain anatomy. It turns out that some of us are hard-wired to battle any change to our behaviour.
While the Duke study looked at rats in controlled environments, some of us aren’t too far removed from a bored rodent looking for a sweet reward for our behaviour. However, just because our brains seem to be working against us, doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t hold the reins.
Let’s look at a common example
Since most resolutions are health-based, let’s say you’d like to begin an early morning fitness regime. Good for you! This kind of activity can set the tone for the day and make you feel like you’ve conquered a mountain before the clock even reads 9am. However, it’s so very easy just to roll over and grab some more sleep before you clock on – which habit will win the battle?
Imagine the alarm goes off, but it’s still dark outside. You’re comfortable and sleepy. No-one is nudging you out of bed and your previous ambition is nowhere to be found. Help! Is this the end already? Of course not! Predicting this very scenario and planning for it will help you out.
There are a number of things you can do in order to make the transition easier, and that starts with getting enough sleep. An early rise may feel extremely unnatural to some people, but understanding your sleep cycles will help. You may get by just fine on 6 hours, but if you really need 9, an adjustment to your bedtime is in order – and you may need to be strict with lights-out.
Pre-sleep planning is also an excellent way to make things easier in the morning. Have your gear ready to go and any needed work items packed if you’re not heading back home, along with anything else you may need to get you on your way. If you need breakfast first, give your sleepy mind cues by leaving out a bowl and a coffee cup.
Raise the alarm
There are a couple of other important steps to help achieve this successful new habit, and they revolve around temptation – arguably, they are the most important. The first is to set your alarm to the latest possible time in order to slot in your morning exercise. This will remove all temptation of the ghastly sleep button, which ruins those precious final minutes of your slumber and leaves you feeling worse. The other step, which is just as important, is to place your alarm clock (or phone alarm) as far away from you as possible without losing its volume. Sometimes getting out of bed is the hardest part, so if you have to take a few steps to turn off the alarm you’re already half way there.
Whatever you struggle with, thinking of strategies to make it a little easier can really help you stay on track.
Getting into the swing of things
If you’ve managed to build momentum and a new habit is slowing forming, well done! You’re leaping across the hardest hurdle – but you’re not yet out of the woods. Adjusting takes a long time and plenty of hard work. Just how much time will vary between individuals – an estimated 18 – 254 days – but once you start feeling the rewards of your new habit and the rewards of the old habit are muted, you can be sure this is the sign of real change.
These new rewards, once cemented, can present themselves as dramatic new changes – physically and mentally. That morning walk (that might have become a jog by now) can make you feel more alert and energised, have you sleeping better, can improve your circulation and your complexion, and will soon start to bring the aesthetic benefits that will lift your self-esteem and give you yet another reason to keep going. All these things will ping your reward centres and start to feel better than that sleep in ever did.
Falling off the wagon
A life event or a patch of weakness is almost inevitable. You can’t always control your internal mechanisms, let alone the external ones. That’s why it’s important to plan for a hiccup, whether it’s an illness or injury, a family, work issue, or simply a change of heart. You’ve come too far to be part of the 78% of resolution-makers who fail. Instead of focusing on the negatives of failing, which is the common link in those who don’t succeed, remember the rewards and the positive aspects of your new habit. If you’re struggling, write them down. The idea is to tap right back into those positive feedback loops instead of beating yourself up about it. The horse hasn’t bolted, so jump right back on!