Breaking the Habit is not only a great song but also a goal that many of us set ourselves at the beginning of a new year. In this article I want to walk you through the science of turning your new-year resolutions into reality.
After the excesses of Christmas and New Year parties many people realize that their life and body is taking a rather unpleasant shape and they make whole-hearted resolutions to quit smoking, cut drinking or do more sports. Usually, these resolutions last a few days, two weeks if you are lucky, before fading into oblivion. The only thing remaining is this little embarrassing voice in your head that says: “Yes, next year I will try again and I will surely be successful“. But why does this happen? Why are we so weak and not able to keep the simplest promises that we give ourselves? And more importantly, how to get around this predisposition? The answer lies in the science of habits and motivation.
One root of the problem lies within the difference between planning for tomorrow and acting in the moment. Planning for the future we can easily imagine a better version of ourselves which gets up at the first ring of the alarm, jumps into sports clothing and onto the track for a quick run. But when the moment arrives, we hit the snooze button five times before rolling out of bed, snuggling into our “jogging pants” and shuffling into the kitchen for our morning coffee. In short, we see the value of future action but when it comes to acting on it, short term gratification weighs much heavier. Often we condemn ourselves for not having enough willpower in the moment to defeat our own urges. But maybe it is better to accept our nature and work with it. Ideally we want to develop a habit of, in our example, getting out of bed quickly and going for a run.
But, wait, what is a habit? Apart from being the habitual dress of ordained nuns and monks a habit can be defined as follows: Psychology defines habits as automated behaviors. Something that we do automatically whenever we are in a certain setting, such as brushing our teeth after a meal or as grabbing our phone after waking up. Habits consist of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. To give a personal example: Usually when I wake up I will grab my phone to look at the time or to shut up the alarm. Grabbing my phone is the cue. What follows is a routine of checking all new messages and scrolling mindlessly (or automatically) through Facebook or Instagram. And my reward is new messages, new information, likes, etc.
The good thing is we can consciously decide to break old and form new habits but we need to know how. The two main factors are to keep it simple and to be patient. If we want to achieve a big and complex goal it is tempting to go all or nothing right away but that will be in our way later on. Let’s say we want to learn a language and decide to study two hours every day. We will manage for a few days but then something will get in the way and it becomes difficult to keep the pace until a new habit is formed. But if we decide to study 15 minutes of vocabulary before going to bed, or if we always use a language learning app when we are in the bus, then the task becomes much more manageable.
As for breaking old habits it is tempting to try “just not to do it”. However that approach more often than not is doomed to fail. Instead a good approach is to analyze our old habits, break them down into cue, routine and reward and try to replace parts of the habit. Like taking my phone as a habit, for example. For a while I did not use it as an alarm so I put it on the other end of the room for charging and put a simple watch next to my bed. In the morning I grabbed the watch as usual but I couldn’t follow my routine of riding the morning wave of social media. I got up much quicker, and didn’t even check my phone until much later in the day. One could also switch the routine. If we assume a habit of eating chocolate every time we are stressed we could try to “just not do it” or we could replace the chocolate with fruit or other healthy but still tasty stuff.
In short, keep it small for the beginning and start by analyzing your existing habits and see how you can adapt them. Great, now we know what a habit is, but we still haven’t really solved the problem of long-term vs. short-term. How do we get started with developing a habit? How do we get out of bed the first few times until we get used to it and it becomes a habit? And how long does it take? According to recent studies it takes about 10 weeks or 66 days to form a new habit. This number can vary however based on the person, age, and the task to be achieved.
To stay on track long enough we need motivation. Motivation can come from different sources and vary greatly between individuals. Some people are able to motivate themselves just by setting a goal and knowing how they will benefit from reaching it. Others, like myself, need accountability from outside to get things done. With that knowledge I now approach my personal goals by getting external some external motivation. When I wanted to learn Portuguese I teamed up with a Brazilian friend of mine. We had regular Skype sessions which really motivated me to sit down and prepare, learn vocabulary or read in Portuguese in advance. This way I achieved much more than I would have, studying completely on my own. However you may have different motivations. So my advice would be to start observing yourself and look for what motivates you. In what circumstances are you reaching your goals, what drives you to do things. What inspires you. Learning about ourselves is the first step to change.
To sum up, before trying to change we need to understand ourselves better. Analyze our habits and our motivations. Then, when the alarm sounds we actually jump out of bed and go for that morning run and make our jogging pants live up to their name. Or, while learning about ourselves, we realized that it doesn’t have to be a marathon and a short walk in the morning sun is just as gratifying. Which brings me to my last remark: While it can be good to change and improve ourselves, it can also be very relaxing to realize that nobody is perfect and that is perfectly fine. It is rewarding to strive for and achieve personal goals but if self-improvement becomes an obsession it won’t make us happy. So, go for that walk if you fancy but don’t feel bad if you enjoy a coffee and some cookies in bed on a Sunday morning.