Ring In the New (Habits)

You’ve made your New Year’s resolutions. You’ve learned from your past experiences and feel better prepared for challenges ahead that may sway your determination. You kick the new year off in the right gear and feel hopeful you’ll do it right this time. You’ve even scoured the Internet to learn the tricks to keeping your resolutions. Now let’s add one more to your bag of tools to increase your chances of success.

I wrote in yesterday’s blog about common reasons New Year’s resolutions fail and what you can do to counter them. People typically make resolutions about making better choices about health (e.g., quit smoking, work out regularly) and/or money (spend less, save more). These resolutions involve introducing a new behavior or extinguishing an old one. Psychologists have known for a long time that to get rid of an old, undesirable behavior, it is inadequate to simply try to stop it. In a classic experiment, students who were instructed to simply refrain from thinking of a white bear within the next minute find themselves involuntarily conjuring up the very image of the creature a lot more frequently than if they had not been given any instructions – after all, how many times in a day do you think about white bears? On the other hand, if students were advised to think of something else, such as a pink elephant, they end up successfully banishing the white bear from their thoughts.

In other words, for every behavior you try to quit, find a new behavior to replace it. Ideally the new behavior should serve the same positive function as the old behavior. If you’re trying to quit smoking, find something that achieves the same effect as smoking gives you, whether it is relaxation, increased mental energy, or social connection. Practice deep breathing in times of stress instead of heading out for a cigarette; drink coffee to give yourself a much needed energy boost.

What about if your resolution is to start doing something new? Understand that what you’re trying to do is not bringing in new habits, but changing old ones. Making the time to exercise more, for instance, means some old habit – say, spending 3 hours in front of the TV – has to change.

In his excellent book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg discusses in detail the Golden Rule of Habit Change. Briefly, he says that every habit comes with a cue, routine, and reward. To change the habit, you must keep the cue and reward, but insert a new routine. If you want to lose weight and have identified frequent snacking at work as one of the habits you need to change, try to identify the cue to your desire to snack (e.g., stress, boredom with menial or unpleasant tasks), your old routine (e.g, reaching for the cookie jar), and the reward that follows (e.g., comfort, distraction). Now see if you can replace your old routine with a new behavior that brings you the same reward.

To maintain your habit change, social support is crucial. If you decide that taking a 15-minute walk gives you the same reward of distraction as snacking does, see if you can arrange for coworker to go for a walk with you every day at the appointed time. This could be a good opportunity for catching up or for creative brainstorming for upcoming projects.

Duhigg argues that, to change a habit, you must be intentional about it. This means consciously accepting the hard work of (a) identifying  the cues and rewards that drive the habit’s routines, and (b) find alternatives. Talk yourself through what you can do when you encounter barriers or setbacks to minimize unforeseen circumstances.

You must also know that you have control and be mindful enough to use your control. Have confidence in yourself and know that you can do it. Old habits die hard because you have had so much practice with them and been reinforced with the reward so many times that they are second nature to you. You engage in old habits when you are in autopilot mode. Stay alert, keep your hands on the deck, and constantly scan the horizon for impending threats or triggers. Practice, practice, practice your new behavior to work it into your routine. With time, it will become effortless. You new behavior then becomes a habit, one that you will embrace for a long time.

What are your resolutions for 2014? What are some potential obstacles and how are you going to address them? Post your comments – making your resolutions known is great way to strengthen your commitment!

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