For many, the beginning of a new year marks a fresh opportunity and renewed hope to address that the negative behaviours that control and hinder our daily lives. However, by January 31st, over 60 per cent of people have broken their resolutions. Although this may not come as a huge surprise to anyone, it isn’t exactly helpful, so we looked into the science behind habit formation and cessation to uncover the best ways to take back control. You’re welcome.
1. It’s not lack of self control
We have a tendency to associate any failure to adhere to our resolutions with a lack of self control, beating ourselves up for being weak on top of feeling rubbish about the slip up itself. But according to research by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Journal Of Personality and Social Psychology, breaking bad habits isn’t due to lack of self control or weak will power. In fact, habits will continue to be automatically activated unless the cues, routine and automated behaviour surrounding it are interrupted, regardless of how strong willed someone is. In other words, you can’y simply will away a bad habit.
What the science does show, however, is that people with stronger willpower are better at establishing and sticking to a new routine that doesn’t present an opportunity to slip back into old habits. For example, if you resolve to stop buying an unhealthy snack every time you pass your local grocery store, a strong willed person will be better at taking a different route to avoid temptation altogether.
2. Don’t expect something to become habitual after a few weeks
There’s a belief that there’s a certain amount of time that is required to both break and establish a habit, and if you can pass that elusive milestone, it will be plain sailing from there on out.
Scientists at Kings College London and UCL tested this theory and found that is was completely untrue. The team studied how long it took 96 volunteers to make a basic health behaviour become habitual. They found that the answer lay anywhere from 18 to 254 days, so don’t give up if you don’t break through as quickly as you had hoped.
3. Reduce triggers to break bad habits
It may sound obvious, but the best way to break bad habits is to eliminate triggers and temptations. This can be as easy as not filling the kitchen cupboards with sugar-filled foods if you’re trying to eat a healthier diet, but can also translate into more subtle changes. A study by scientists Wansick and Payne assessed the habits of participants at a Chinese buffet and the results concluded that there was a direct link between a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) and volunteers who sat facing the buffet. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
4. If you’re trying to form a new habit, make it immediately rewarding
We know the long-term risks and rewards of our bad habits. We know that smoking causes cancer, yet still smoke. We realise that exercise can promote overall heath, yet still bail on the gym. It makes little logical sense when all the evidence is there, which can make it all the more frustrating when trying to change.
However, scientists have shown that behaviours with immediate rewards are the ones that are repeated. It’s not enough for us to know that in forty years’ time, we’ll feel good – we need to feel great now. While this may not be the most encouraging insight into the human psyche, it does suggest a crucial way to boost your chances at sticking to resolutions by combining something rewarding with your new healthy habit. For example, if are obsessed with Love Island and at the same time are trying to work out more often, combine the two and make a rule that you can only tune into an episode while doing an at-home yoga session or at-home workout. If you love chocolate and have resolved to meditate daily, make a rule that you can only have chocolate following your meditation session.