The battle of giants – New Year’s resolutions and the power of habit

What are your good intentions for the New Year or maybe also for the new decade – something like more sport, digital detox, less work and enjoying life instead? We all know exactly what would do us good and how we could bring more satisfaction, happiness and health into our lives, but why do we often find it so difficult to put our good intentions and goals into practice?

Our habits cannot be consciously controlled.

The natural enemy of any New Year’s resolution are our habits, i.e. those behaviors that we regularly practice in a stable context without much thought or consideration. Researchers assume that between 30 and 50 percent of our daily actions are determined by habits and this makes perfect sense (Stangl 2020). The everyday confrontation of a human being with new and complex processes requires awareness, attention and concentration, whereby the human brain strives to routine as much of its tasks as possible. Without routines , the brain would often be overloaded by the details of everyday life and already be so busy with the brushing of teeth in the morning that only a fraction of the mental capacity would be available for more important thought processes such as setting the agenda for the next meeting.
For our New Year’s resolutions there is only one problem. The brain doesn’t distinguish between good and bad habits. Once a behavior has been established, it is very hard to change, even if are determined to do so. That’s because our habits are treated as routines in the basal ganglia of the brain and this part of the brain is not controlled by the will. When a certain stimulus appears, then to save energy, it triggers an automatic reaction – our habit, and the rest of the brain is put into a sleep mode and so quasi any intentional control is switched off.

If you know how habits function and where they start, you can change them.

The psychologist Wendy Wood from the University of Southern California has shown in many experiments how strongly we link situations with habits (see Wood 2015). The result is : who wants to change his habits has to change its context. If by chance you have just moved to a new town or changed your job, you have the perfect scenario to establish new behaviors. Many of the stimuli that trigger “bad” habits are eliminated by the new environment, thus giving you the opportunity to establish new behaviors. If you are not turning your entire living environment upside down now , even small changes in your everyday surroundings are enough: for example, if healthy eating is your goal, put the unhealthy food on a top shelf that is only accessible with some effort or place your running shoes right next to your bed if you intend to go jogging in the morning. If you want to get rid of a “bad” habit, find out through which context, which situation this habit is triggered and how you can possibly eliminate this stimulus .
Important to know : it may take time to establish a new habit. Studies have shown that it may take between 15 and 254 days until a new habit can really take shape The most important criterion for success hereby is the presence of a triggering stimulus. For example the running shoes next to the bed or the daily glass of water before breakfast. It is also helpful to reward oneself for the new behaviour and to do so as directly as possible. The reward of feeling fit and slim some day does not help much here. Perhaps you keep a tally sheet where you tick off every jogging session and after 10 hooks you are allowed a sauna visit or after 5 days of healthy nutrition you treat yourself to a large portion of ice cream.
Another mechanism that helps to establish the new habit is to consider in advance how you will deal with setbacks or changes in plans. What if it’s slippery? If you have to get up very early because of a business trip? If a copious business meal is awaiting you? If you have a solution to those situations, you will not feel inconsistent, thus increasing the probability that you will continue many more times.

Established habits automatically work by themselves.

Once you have cleared the first hurdle of establishing a new triggering mechanism, the habit runs its own course. People who go jogging regularly will sooner or later feel the urge to go outside. People who are used to eating fruit, quasi automatically crave for it after a while. And if all this sounds too elaborate and not very promising to you: the biggest trend in this year’s New Year’s resolutions were”Not-To-Do-Lists”, maybe your New Year’s resolutions belong exactly to this category ?
Sources:
  • Sheina Orbell & Bas Verplanken (2015) The strength of habit, Health Psychology Review, 9:3, 311-317, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2014.992031
  • Stangl, W. (2020). keyword: ‘Gewohnheit’. Online Lexikon für Psychologie und Pädagogik.: https://lexikon.stangl.eu/6140/gewohnheit/ (2020-01-09)
  • http://www.zeit.de/zeit-wissen/2013/02/Psychologie-Gewohnheiten/ (2020-01-09)
  • Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843–863. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.114.4.843