Your New Year’s resolutions are destined for failure but habits will get you to where you want to be!

 

When Mary Shelley wrote, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change,” she wasn’t wrong. In fact, she goes a long way in explaining why the resolutions that we all set at the beginning of January, have all but disappeared by the beginning of February. Sudden changes in routine, lifestyle, behaviour quite literally take their toll on the brain and don’t work. No matter how motivated we feel when we set out, before we know it we’re back to our old ways and our goals seem further away than ever. We are left feeling defeated and disillusioned. So how do we make real, lasting change in our lives? The answer is habit, and here’s how it works.

 

What is a habit?

The Neuroscience

First, it’s important to understand why change is so hard so that we can work with our brain instead of feeling like we’re battling against it. The brain is a lump of fatty tissue with electrical circuitry running through it. Every thought, every move, every decision we ever make travels down these electrical wires (neurons), of which there are about 100 billion, as an electrical impulse. New information, whether it be a new word, a new route home or a new activity, causes the connections between these neurons to shift.

 

Take learning a new dance routine as an example; you’re trying to take on board several new sequences of body movements, to learn the beats of the music and to move specific body parts on specific beats. Each individual piece of information activates neurons in the part of the brain responsible for that action. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain used for high-level tasks like planning and decision making is fired up at this point and is consuming a lot of energy.

 

As you practice over and over again, these parts of the brain notice that they are being activated together over and over again, and to save time and energy, they create a pathway between them. Gradually, the information is passed from your prefrontal cortex to your hippocampus, where it stored in your long-term memory. This means that as soon as you hear the first bar of the song, all the information you’ve memorised for your dance routine is ready to be actioned. Each time you perform the routine, this pathway becomes smoother and quicker, until you don’t have to think about it anymore. Your brain can run on energy-saving autopilot. A habit has been created!

 

Why is change so hard?

 

Imagine that your brain is like a mountain covered in fresh, white, sparkling snow. There are no footprints, paw marks or blemished. A new behavioural pathway is like skiing through this snow and creating a passage through it. The more times you ski over it, the more it becomes entrenched. If you have been acting out a behaviour your whole life, its pathway will be a lot smoother and more embedded than a behaviour that you’ve only been acting out for a few months. The brain enjoys taking these well known, familiar routes as it is the path of least resistance.

 

But what happens if this ski run, this neuron pathway, is no longer helpful to us and we would like to change it? This would require us to veer off the well-trodden route and to start making a whole new path through unchartered snow. This requires a lot of energy and effort, and you tire quickly. The longer that the pathway has been there, the deeper it runs and the more force is needed to break out of it. The brain wants to save you as much struggle as possible, so it will do anything and everything it can to prevent you from veering off and changing this pathway.

 

What can you do?

 

So yes, change is hard but it is not impossible.

Here are our top 5 tips on making healthy habits that will last

  1. Rest Up: 

As we’ve seen, learning new behaviours takes a lot of energy and effort, especially in the beginning stages. Fatigue means that our brains have a minimal energy supply and will do whatever it can to save energy. The main way that it can do this is by sticking to well-worn old behavioural patterns which is why we often slip back into old, unhelpful habits when we’re tired.

     2. Practice Mindfulness:

Mindfulness helps us support new habits by both lowering stress and strengthening the brain. When we are stressed, our brain switches into fight or flight mode, where it is on high alert for any threats. Whilst in this state, your brain wants to save energy and time for quick responses to threats. The rational thinking parts of your brain are switched off and your brain goes into autopilot. This is why we often “fall off the wagon” when we are stressed. Mindfulness lowers our stress levels and practices our relaxation response.

Mindfulness also strengthens the brain in a similar way to weightlifting strengthening other muscles. It thickens and stimulates grey matter growth in lesser used parts of the brain, meaning that, when the time does come for change to be made, it is strong and fit to help facilitate this change. Read more about mindfulness here.

     3. Start Small:

Often when setting resolutions, we make huge promises to ourselves like, “I’m going to go to the gym for 2 hours, every day for the rest of my life.” Our brains are clever devices and can already anticipate the level of effort required for making such a huge change to our neural pathways, so they will put up maximum resistance to this change in routine. If you start small, committing instead to 20 minutes three times per week, then your brain is less intimidated by this change, it throws up less resistance and your more likely to show up to the gym instead of endlessly snoozing your alarm clock.

    4. Find an Accountability Buddy:

As seen above, during times of fatigue and stress, our brains really like to slip into old ways. Partnering up with a friend in an accountability buddy system can help you to keep reinforcing your new habits even when you’re exhausted and stressed. It also makes it a lot more fun!   

    5. Be Gentle with Yourself:

Perhaps the most important of all our tips! Your brain interprets you beating yourself up mentally in the same way that it interprets an external threat and your brain switches into fight or flight mode. If you berate and belittle yourself every time you slip up, which you inevitably will do (welcome to being human), your brain actually comes to fear taking on new challenges in anticipation of the self-inflicted psychological suffering it will go through. If you can learn to treat yourself with compassion then you are more likely to get back on track quicker and smash those goals!!