With the New Year right around the corner, we often take stock of our daily habits and commit to resolutions. Whether you aim to exercise more, quit smoking or change your relationship with food, habits can be difficult to break. By considering expert strategies, you can be successful in achieving your goals.
Why habits are hard to change
A habit is formed through three steps: cue, routine and reward, says Dr. Elliot Berkman, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscientist at the University of Oregon. If the cue is seeing an unhealthy food item, the routine is deciding to eat the food and the reward is the taste.
A research overview from Duke University, Habits: A Repeat Performance, concludes that “failures to change do not necessarily indicate poor willpower or insufficient understanding of health issues. but instead the power [of cues] to trigger past responses. Habits keep us doing what we have always done, despite our best intentions to act otherwise.”
“We often run on autopilot,” Berkman tells Rewire Me. When it comes to changing habits,” he notes, “It’s always an uphill battle. It’s better to create new habits, rather than white knuckle or overcome old habits.”
How to achieve goals
Previous goal theories focused on goal setting. “Those models are great as far as they go, but are ‘cold’ in that they do not contain any emotional or motivational elements, explains Berkman. “The ‘hot’ parts are what make a goal exciting and which sustain our focus through the rough patches and for the long haul.”
For instance, to increase motivation, Berkman’s research explains that some people’s brains are wired to be more motivated by reward and others by punishment. People motivated by reward should set up positive reinforcements for themselves, like buying a new outfit after losing weight. For those motivated by punishment, the threat of not being able to fit into a special occasion outfit may serve as a stimulus.
Why do I want this goal?
Berkman focuses on why a person wants to achieve a goal. “For people trying to diet, the real reason is often something like: ‘I know that society expects that I should.’” But that’s an extrinsic value—coming from outside the person.
He says there may also be a competing intrinsic value, such as: I really value my family, and they don’t eat very healthy. So, when we’re together, I don’t usually eat healthy.
That’s when Berkman asks how you can make dieting equally important to your intrinsic family values. Maybe, he suggests, “It’s because ‘If I diet I’ll live longer and have more energy, so I can spend more time with my family.’”
Goals can also relate to our sense of self. For example, if the doctor tells someone to quit smoking, but smoking affirms who they are—someone cool and aloof—quitting may change their self-image. The doctor’s advice is an extrinsic goal competing with their sense of identity.
“We don’t think enough about ‘Why do I care about the thing I’m trying to change?’” Berkman says. “That’s why it’s important to give some thought to who you think you are and maintaining your sense of self while still having a different behavior.”
How will I achieve the goal?
Breaking a goal down into manageable pieces is key. One way to motivate yourself is to set up interim goals, such as increasing exercise five minutes per week. “People won’t work on a goal they don’t think they can achieve.” Berkman advises.
The American Psychological Association (APA) also advises the secret to achieving goals is to create and meet small goals that lead to long-term lifestyle changes. In an interview, Stephen Guise, author of Mini-Habits, told Diana Burrell, The Renegade Writer that he bases his theory around the idea of “mini-goals” like doing one measly push-up per day. “But you do it,” he says “and because you’re already face-down on the ground, you will probably do more.” And it’s likely to become a habit that sticks.
Gradually building helpful cues into your environment will help attain small goals. Berkman refers to the sleep hygiene theory where you don’t read or watch TV in your bed, so you associate it only with sleep. “It’s the same thing with habits,” he says. “Focus on tangibility of the cues.”
Studies at Columbia and Alberta leaving out gym clothes the night before can be an effective cue for a morning workout, with subsequent rewards, such as a mid-day treat or the emotional boost from logging your workouts.
By avoiding a particular trigger or cue, you can also change your behavior. Berkman referenced a study where people who sat with their backs to the buffet were less likely to overeat.
“Anticipation is another trick people can use,” Berkman says. “When you are faced with the habit, it’s too late.” If you are trying to quit smoking, Berkman advises avoiding smoking bars where someone is likely to offer you a cigarette because it’s hard to refuse in that moment. Choose a non-smoking bar instead.
Use support from friends to help reach your goals. “Personal trainers and life coaches can be really effective,” says Berkman. He believes any public commitment makes you more beholden to it.
After examining your motivations, breaking down goals into small steps and finding reliable support, you can look forward to a productive New Year full of promise and hope for positive change.