Another year has come to an end. For many, this is the time when we reflect on the past 365 days, take stock of where we are, and decide the path of our life moving forward. We make a list of things we want to change and create resolutions to get the job done.
Often, we start the year off with a bang moving full force in the new direction, and then boom - a different bang - we hit a wall. Everything we strive to accomplish with such passion slides to the side, and we fall back into the routine of the behavior we know so well.
There’s a familiarity about the promises we make to ourselves each year. One can easily ask: Didn’t I make those self-same promises last year? And maybe even the year before?
So why, if we are so determined to make change, do we fall short of our goals?
According to experts, one of the main reasons new year resolutions are so hard to maintain is because the thing we want to change is a habit – behavior that comes from the subconscious part of our brain that is done automatically, without conscious thought.
Typical resolutions like eating healthy, quitting smoking or drinking, increasing physical activity, or spending more time with loved ones, are designed to change routines that have been around for many years. While it’s easy to assume that we should be able to willfully make long-term changes to established patterns, desire alone usually is not enough.
According to Charles Duhigg, in his book, The Power of Habit, there is a three-step loop that occurs: A cue or trigger, which tells our brain to go into automatic mode; the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional; and the reward, which helps our brain determine if this loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic.
While wanting to change is the first step, experts say that the key to enacting lasting change is understanding the process and identifying our triggers. For example, if we want to quit smoking, we can quit cold turkey, but understanding what triggered our smoking will provide a greater chance of success. When we recognize what situations trigger our current habit – having a morning cup of coffee, stress, drinking alcohol, going out with friends, driving, etc. – we can create a positive habit that we are going to do instead.
So, when we wake in the morning and have coffee, instead of smoking, what will we do? If we’re stressed or out with friends, what will we do? Replace the old habit with a positive one. Be mindful and consistent. Create the new routine that results from the trigger and our brain learns the new reward.
Don’t try to change life all at once. Some people decide that they are going to lose weight, exercise every day, quit smoking, get a new job, and spend more time with family. A complete overhaul will lead to overload, and we will give up. Work on one habit at a time and take baby steps. Lean in gently. If we usually leave work at 7 pm and want to spend more time with family, go home at 6:30 pm for a few weeks or even months. Then gradually make it earlier. Once that becomes a new habit, work on something else.
Lasting change won’t happen overnight. But with mindfulness, determination, consistency, and patience, we can achieve any goal we desire.
Remember, for big change, think small. As Mark Twain said, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”