New Year, New Change
The beginning of a new year is truly a great time for initiating change. New years offer the promise of fresh starts. What must we do differently, then, to avoid the annual dance of jumping on that promise, only to give up a few weeks later?
When I did some exploration about resolutions, I found that most of them fit into two categories—the flip side of one coin: Giving up a habit, such smoking/drinking/binge-watching TV, or creating a new one, like going to the gym, keeping the desk neat, checking in on Mom more often.
Some resolutions reflect broader desires: “I resolve to be less judgmental” or “to be a better parent.” These are more identity-based, but if you look closely, they too depend on dropping or adding habits. (For example, becoming less judgmental may include breaking the habit of pigeonholing people based on their appearance, while adding the habit of listening to others’ perspectives and life experiences. Becoming a “better” parent may include breaking the habit of “fixing” or “rescuing,” while adding the habit of “waiting-and-seeing” how children will solve their own problems.)
“Habit” seems to have become a new buzz-word. Looking at habits through a scientific lens has recently entered the mainstream, but the study has actually been around for quite some time. (Anyone else remember Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, and classical conditioning from our intro psych days?)
Because I’m making several New Year’s resolutions for 2019 that I really hope to keep, I decided to do some research. I wanted to see if I could get in on any of the science to help me keep my resolve this year. So … last week, I read four books (I am a bit of a self-help-book junkie): This Year I Will … by M.J. Ryan, published in 2006; The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, published in 2012; Willpower Doesn’t Work by Benjamin Hardy and Atomic Habits by James Clear, both published just this year.
Here’s some of what I found most useful.
You Have to Want it Bad
First, and this may seem obvious, you have to want it—want the new
I say new habit, because wanting to get rid of an old habit may not be enough. Getting rid of something implies that a vacuum will be created, and we all know the saying “nature abhors a vacuum.” Better have a new, improved behavior/thought waiting in the wings to fill in the empty space!
Our brains are busy. They look for default patterns, wherever those patterns exist, to free up energy for tasks that require real thinking. There is a strong pull to do things exactly the way we’ve done them before. This preference for habits has been built into our brains. According to M.J. Ryan, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” and if we want to change the wiring, which is in effect what habit-changing does, we need to provide the brain with a new pathway to follow (the new habit).
Let’s take smoking for example. You may want to give up smoking because of health risks, because of tobacco odors, because of all those judgmental people mentioned above. But when the desire to grab a cigarette—the “wired-in” habit feedback loop—grabs you, it will often be stronger than the desire to quit. The smoking road has been well traveled. The path to quitting has not yet been paved!
Habit Feedback Loop
So … you have this bad habit. This destructive habit. You want to get rid of it, lose it, kill it! But here’s a newsflash: Habits never die.
There is hope, however! When you have a “bad” habit, you can create a better one to override it.
To help in this endeavor, here’s an explanation of the habit feedback loop.
Charles Duhigg, in his mega bestseller, spends a great deal of time on the three-step loop of habit formation.
1. Cue—This is the trigger. It tells the brain to go into auto-mode and signals to the brain which habit to use.
2. Routine—This is the behavior or the thought that kicks in in response to the trigger/cue.
3. Reward—Ahhhh, the reward! If the reward is good enough, the brain decides that this loop is one to remember! Voila—a habit is born!
Let’s cut the smokers a break and examine the sugar addicts. (I’ll use myself as an example.) Here’s my sweet process:
Cue—There are many “sugar” cues in my environment. Here are just two:
• I have two boxes of Trader Joe’s Mini Dark Chocolate Mint Stars
sitting on my kitchen shelf, right beside the microwave. (I actually think I can hear them call out to me every time I walk by.)
• I do a lot of my writing in the Manhasset Library—second floor. There’s a candy vending machine in the lounge, one floor below—Snickers, Kit-Kats, chocolate covered almonds! (I have been known to make a convincing argument—it convinces me, anyway—about the value of the protein in the almonds.)
• When I enter the kitchen, I open a box of mini stars and take out one, two, a handful of cookies. (They’re really small.)
• When I work in the Manhasset Library—second floor—I take a break, walk down the stairs (exercise) and buy a candy bar.
Reward: Chocolate—Delicious, dreamy chocolate.
Cue, routine, reward. Cue, routine, reward. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.
Repetition leads to autopilot mode. The more often these loops occur, the more automatic they become. I walk into my kitchen and automatically head for the box. No thought needed.
When I’m in the library, I open my wallet and collect the change for the vending machine. It feels instinctual.
Why have these cycles become so powerful?
One word: Craving.
Duhigg contends that craving is critical to habit formation. (James Clear, in Atomic Habits,
has a four-step process–craving is his step two.) When a cue becomes intimately intertwined with the reward, a powerful sense of anticipation emerges–that sense is what we call craving.
Information is Power. Now What?
Ok. The loop makes sense. Lots of sense. And yes, cravings are powerful forces. But … how do we combat the cravings and get rid of the loop?
We don’t! We make a change within
Why do we smoke? Eat cookies? Drink? Because substances are solutions. Not good ones but solutions just the same. They make us feel different whenever we want to feel different.
Is it really the chocolate I crave when I eat a cookie? Partially. But I am also drawn to the cookie because somewhere along the line, I began to associate food, especially sweets, with love, with safety, with self-care.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time by myself. I found a few ways to combat my loneliness. One of them was eating chocolate. Somehow, chocolate soothed me and took me to a happier place. Today, when I am triggered to eat a bunch of cookies, I am really trying to satisfy my craving to meet those underlying needs.
So … if I can just realign the triggers with a different reward—an activity or a thought (routine) that will satisfy the underlying need—I can kiss those cookies good-bye.
Unless … I use more science to make it so.
More Steps to Come
Heightened awareness. Knowledge. These are the first steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Next week, next steps. They will include designing your environment
to support your new, desired habit; shifting your identity
—just a bit, no need to worry, you will still be you; and going public
In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences with New Year’s resolutions. With habit change. What would you like to add/subtract from your habit inventory this year?
Consider examining your cues. What are your triggers, your habit feedback loops? And what are the underlying needs that cause the cravings?
I’ve already hinted at one of my resolutions—giving up sugary sweets—and I’ve shared my loop. I will need to find a strong reward to fill that sugar-less void (one that fulfills the underlying need of safety, love, and self-care).
Next week, I will “go public” with two more.
Wishing everyone a happy, healthy New Year! Wonderful rediscoveries ahead!
See you next Friday!