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Kicking Bad Habits: Why We Need to Rethink Resolutions

March 21, 2014

advice on how to kick bad habits like quitting smoking, and how to keep your resolutions

“I’ll quit on Monday.” Perhaps you’ve made a choice to rethink resolutions about yourself over some bad habit. Resolutions like this rarely work.  In fact, according to a recent University of Scranton survey published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, about 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only 8 percent are successful. I’ve been one of those unsuccessful folks so many times that I decided to bag the resolution thing years ago. Here’s my confession and here’s what I learned about why resolutions and Monday morning quitting have such a small chance of sticking for the long haul. For years I struggled to quit smoking, promising myself I’d quit every Monday and every New Years Day. I quit smoking so many times that the most excellent quitter became part of my identity. Understanding how my brain works finally helped me kick the habit, but here were some of my very human, very common mistakes over the years:

  • Motivated by Should
  • Propelled By Stopping
  • Fighting against Habit

Motivated by Should: My motivation for quitting was always grounded in “should” versus “want”. I should because my friends and family keep guilting me. I should because I smell like an ashtray. I should because it’s really cold outside. Also, I should because the daily dose of cognitive dissonance feels terrible (the internal discomfort that ensues when you have inconsistent beliefs and behaviors). To put it in normal speaking person’s terms, my inconsistent beliefs and behaviors were that I was/am an avid crossfitter, yogi, and disciplined healthy eater and I like lecturing other people about healthy living as much as possible. It’s hard to do that when you stink like an ashtray and you are secretly the biggest hypocrite on the planet.

The Bottom Line and What to Do About It: It’s incredibly difficult to stop doing something (e.g., eating a lot of food, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, spending money, etc.) when you really don’t want to and the desire to quit is grounded in what other people think you should do. You need to truly want to do something and it needs to be yours and yours only, not what someone else really wants you to do. So only commit to doing something when you are ready for it, not when everyone else thinks you should be ready for it. And sometimes New Years Day or Monday isn’t the right day.

Scott Adams on Understanding Basic Human Psychology

Propelled By Stopping: When you focus on stopping or quitting or not doing something that you are very used to doing (e.g., eating a lot of food, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, spending money, etc.) you are literally fighting your natural, human urge to gain over lose. As humans, we are loss-adverse; meaning it hurts us more to lose something than to gain something (e.g., we find more pain in losing 50 dollars than we do gaining 50 dollars). Therefore, we will white-knuckle our terrible habits when we frame them as things we need to lose, which of course most of us do.

The Bottom Line and What to Do About It:  To avoid the white-knuckling, reframe the challenge into something you can potentially gain. For example:

I need to stop eating so much/I need to lose weight = I want to gain strength, endurance and flexibility in order to compete in that race, keep up with my kids [fill in the blank].

I need to quit smoking = I want to run three miles without stopping to catch my breath, I want to add a few years to my life, I want to have white teeth.

I need to stop spending money = I want to learn to have financial flexibility and freedom.

Utilizing the word “Learn” as much as possible helps oppose the all too frequent stop language of resolutions. When we propose something to ourselves as a challenge to learn, it’s not only more appealing to embrace than when we propose it as something we have to lose it’s also working with human nature rather than against it.

To learn is to be human. We begin to learn from the minute we are born. Our development and ability to function in the world depends on the act of learning. Therefore, challenging yourself to learn something new goes with the flow of being human; whereas challenging yourself to lose something you like goes against human nature. We learn, we don’t stop. Learning new habits is no different. You are not quitting smoking you are learning how to be a non-smoker.

Fighting against Habit

To make a resolution stick involves changing your habitual behavior. Change, however, is psychologically and energetically taxing because our brains have to rewire. In fact, the mere prospect of change can create significant psychological discomfort (think about the days leading up to your “change” date).

Over time, habitual behavior rewires your brain in a particular way, creating neural pathways and memories, which eventually become the default basis for your behavior when you’re faced with a choice or a decision. Smoking, laziness, eating out of boredom, spending money you don’t have – these are all default behaviors based on habitual wiring of your brain to give you what will make you feel good. Trying to abstain from one of the aforementioned habits actually makes you want to do it more because the abstention feels bad. Ergo, you will fight to feel good. Change actually requires creating completely new ways of thinking which trigger new neural pathways, which lead to new default modes of behavior.

On top of that, habits live in the most stubborn of our brain structures, the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia stores all of our useful skills and habits, like putting on our socks before we put on our shoes, driving our usual route to work without thinking, and to perk up our ears when we hear the music of the ice cream truck. On the flip side, the basal ganglia can cause you to automatically drive home from work along your normal route when you had promised to swing by your friend’s house first. It’s both a blessing and a curse – it contains all of the skills and memories we need to function on a daily basis but could also potentially contribute to keeping you in a rut.

Learning something as simple as tying your shoes takes a tremendous amount of initial brainpower, but once you get the hang of it, it consumes very little.  The formation of such habits involves one particular part of the basal ganglia, the striatum.  As we master routines, dopamine rewards us with feelings of pleasure, helping us perpetuate the routine. So you are being perpetually rewarded for maintaining your habits, good and bad alike.

By contrast, when you are trying to add or change a habit you are activating the prefrontal cortex, a very active part of the brain that helps us focus our thoughts and requires a lot of conscious mental energy, which is hard work. The prefrontal cortex is also connected to the emotional center of our brain and will trigger a firestorm of emotions (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety, et cetera) when it senses change. So you simply think “I want to change this habit” and unbeknownst to you your brain begins to fiercely protect the habits its grown to love, making it that much harder for you to change the status quo of your behavior.

The Bottom Line and What to Do About It:  Change is brutal and triggers psychological and emotional discomfort. Recognize that you will naturally want to hold onto your own personal status quo. Change takes time, discipline, a plan and some basic TLC (if and when you have a lapse). Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit suggests a three-stage process for creating positive habits:

1. Cue: Since habits are triggered by cues (triggers or signals that tell you to act in a certain way) identify cues that will help you meet your goal. Cues are often centered on location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding an action. For example, if you typically find yourself noshing on junk at your desk every afternoon at 3PM, identify a 3PM cue that helps you learn the new habit (e.g., get up from your desk and go for a 10 minute walk, chug a bottle of water and set a 15 minute timer before you put anything else in your mouth)

2.  Routine: Be very specific about the steps you will take to form the habit. For example, if you are working on gaining strength, endurance and flexibility, schedule the times you will do your chosen exercised throughout the day and the foods you will be eating that day.

3.  Reward: In order to embed the new behavior into a habit, reward yourself with something related to the habit. Perhaps it’s recognizing the endorphin rush after a workout or the taste of a healthy breakfast following a workout. If you anticipate and associate the reward with the action, your brain eventually craves the reward further entrenching the habit.

Hopefully this insight into silly resolutions will help you not beat yourself up if it’s February and you’ve already dropped your commitment to doing things differently. Instead of giving up completely, figure out what you really want to do differently, frame the goal into something that you are gaining (vs. losing) and learning (vs. stopping) and respect that your brain will need some time incorporating this new awesomeness into your life while helping you to rethink resolutions.

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About The Author

NICOLE LIPKIN, a sought-after speaker and consultant, holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology as well as an MBA. She has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, CBS, Fox Business News, and other high-profile media outlets. Find out more at www.equilibriacoaching.com.

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