Every year, the calendar kindly starts over at Day 1. Traditionally, a time for rethinks and new beginnings. But perhaps you are sceptical about making New Year’s resolutions? With good reason: most resolutions collapse before Day 31. Why is it so difficult to make changes that are supposed, after all, to make you feel better about yourself?
St Paul famously fretted, “Why do I keep doing what I wish I wouldn’t, and keep not doing what I should?” The answer is that he didn’t understand how the brain works. Our behaviour is chiefly governed, not by ideals, not by threats, but by habit. Like Google remembering your search history, the brain expects to do what it has done before.
Habit is unconscious, involuntary behaviour. That is its value, and its curse. Value, because it saves time and energy; you don’t have to keep reinventing what to do or how to do it. Curse, because habits kick in automatically. Even when it is bad for you, habitual behaviour feels familiar, and takes less effort; and that seems comforting, even if you hate yourself for it later. Habits override your best intentions, and whoops – before you know it, you’re doing it again.
‘We are what we repeatedly do,’ as Aristotle observed. Our lives are shaped by what we repeatedly do…and by what we repeatedly say, hear, think, believe, imagine. Don’t shame yourself for what does not work in your life, as if your character were fatally flawed. Habits are learned. They can be unlearned, and new ones planted.
Habit is all about connections. The brain links one habitual action to another. To grow a new habit, embed it into your usual routine: practise your affirmations or your Arabic in your daily shower. To unlearn a habit, you interrupt the automatic chain of events. If you habitually have a cigarette with your morning cup of coffee, and then cut out just the cigarette, you will feel bereft as the brain gropes for the missing link. But invent a new routine – drink orange juice instead, take the dog for a run – where the smoke has no place and would spoil the pleasure.
When I was a child, a wire-and-plastic brace was fitted on my teeth that abruptly put an end to my comforting habit of thumb-sucking. I would have outgrown it anyway; I only remember stopping because of its brutal suddenness. But unlike childish behaviours, our most addictive habits do not gradually cease. Like water, they run along grooves dug deep by frequent use.
To etch a new habit takes time and repetition, reminders to yourself and more repetition, until it becomes automatic. To get out of an old rut, you need strategies to avoid sliding into old patterns while you nurture new ways. Either way, if you want to change something in your life, it is practical psychology to pin it to a definite date, like the New Year. An external structure such as a timeline, or a planned programme or support system, helps you to put a decision into action and to monitor your progress.
But improving aspects of your life is not about forcing yourself. The secret of lasting change is to make a new behaviour feel more natural and satisfying to do than to not do. One foot automatically follows the other when the way is clear ahead.