Why do we make New Year’s resolutions? It is usually about breaking old habits that no longer serve us and creating new, better habits. To do this successfully, we need to understand what is a habit and the neuroscience behind making habits.
A habit is a behavior that is performed so routinely that it becomes almost unconscious or automatic. Habits serve a purpose for us, and are rewarding for us in some way. Humans are hard-wired to naturally seek rewards: objects or sensations that are pleasing or necessary for us. Thus, our brains create habits when it senses pleasure or feels rewarded. Our brains, or more specifically, the striatum, located in the basal ganglia section of our brain, develop neural pathways (a series of connected neurons whose polarization is permanently raised closer to the threshold potential, making it easier to propagate action potentials down this path) to lead us to a reward, by remembering the associations to the item that previously triggered a dopamine release (pleasure). This is how habits are formed, and the more times this pathway is traveled to and rewarded, the stronger the habit will become.
Habits that form and create negative effects in our lives are referred to as “bad habits.” But, of course, we have some good habits, too. People often work to shed bad habits because they know these habits usually have maladaptive repercussions on their health and on their relationships.
New habits or pathways can be formed and strengthened, but even old pathways that lie dormant and seem to be overcome can resurface in the presence of certain cues or stimuli. Thus, to break old habits and create new ones, we need to attach new pleasurable associations and cues to new routines. To make it easier to stick with your New Year’s resolution, think of what things you find pleasure in that increase your dopamine, and attach those things with your new routine (new plan). Habits are strengthened by the associations and settings that usually co-exist with them.
Specific tips for Creating New Habits
The first step of tackling a bad habit is to increase your awareness of the habit itself and all of its effects on you and your loved ones. You need to answer these questions about your habit:
- How has keeping this habit given you pleasure or rewarded you in the past?
- Why is that particular reward no longer working or how has the habit become maladaptive?
- What habits would you like to create?
- Envision or visualize a pleasure response to attach to that habit. For example, visualize the endorphin rush you will get from running five miles or sticking to your exercise routine.
- Create something physical that brings you pleasure to attach to the habit or routine. For example, put your favorite up-tempo song on your iPod and link that song with the process of going to the gym. Thus, the pleasure received from hearing your favorite song will be attached to the process of going to the gym
- Repeat the linking process several times until it becomes automatic.
- Always remember the reward/pleasure part because this is the part that the brain registers and makes your routine become a habit.
Motivation and commitment towards shedding your habit are paramount; in the beginning, each and every day will be challenging in its own way. Be sure to give yourself positive rewards for all of the steps you take, as they will maintain your motivation.
How Long Does it Take to Develop New Habits?
There is no research that offers a scientifically-based timeline for how long it takes to break a habit. It has often been said that 21 days was all that was needed; however, there is no scientific basis for this. Some habits take months — even years — to face. For many people, bad habits can be something they face for a lifetime. This is why it is so important to make up your mind and commit to a positive change for you and those you care about and to focus on the pleasure that change will create.
Other Helpful Tips
• Because habits are strengthened by the associations we develop with them, habits are more easily broken when surrounding associations are changed as well. Think of triggers for your habit and change what they mean to you (i.e., don’t equate coffee with cigarettes; begin to equate it with something else, like a crossword puzzle or calling a friend).
• Try to change only one habit at a time. Instead of telling yourself, “I’m going to work out every day, eat healthy and save money,” select just one goal. Focus on only one goal at a time.
• Break your goal down into more specific, smaller, trackable parts, if possible. Instead of making a resolution to be healthier, create a goal of walking 30 minutes a day, three times a week.