Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
The ancient Babylonians are credited for starting New Year’s Resolutions around 4000 years ago. They would make promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed. If they kept their word the gods would grant them good fortune and if not they would fall out of the gods’ favor.
The New Year’s Resolution has become a cliché, a joke for many of us. It is a practice that many of us might have engaged in only to revert (often fairly quickly) back to our old ways.
One common resolution is to get more physical activity. I will use this frequently used resolution to show how you can use neuroscience to help make your resolutions stick and significantly increase your chances for converting them into long-lasting habits.
1) Set up a sign/Cue Yourself – MAKE IT OBVIOUS – When we attempt a new behavior, its important to remember to do it. We mostly operate in an unconscious and mindless manner – going through our day with our current set of habits. It’s easy to forget to start a new behavior without setting up a reminder in your environment to act like a little alarm clock to cue yourself to engage in the new behavior.
Ex: You decide to walk in the morning for 10 minutes a day – 5 days a week (Monday – Friday).
Cue: You set up a daily alarm on your phone in the evening to alert you to lay out your morning clothes and sneakers in a place that you will easily notice when you get up in the morning. When you wake up in the morning, seeing your clothes and sneakers laid out will cue you to remember to start your new walking routine.
2) Nudge/Impulse – MAKE IT ATTRACTIVE – Buy yourself a nice pair of comfortable sneakers and clothes that you only use for your morning walks until you have done it for 30 days. Pick a walking location that is easily accessible and a nice place to go for a walk.
3) Action/Response – MAKE IT EASY – You may want to start with a 5min walk first and then build up as your walking routine becomes easier to do and more automatic. The problem with most resolutions is that they are often more complex than most people realize and if the complexity and difficulty bar is set too high then you are more likely to have that little voice in your head make excuses and start skipping the action.
4) Reward – MAKE IT PLEASURABLE – If you follow the first 3 elements of habit making, it will make the entire behavior more pleasurable to engage in. You can add “a carrot” at the end of the walk such as having a high-quality cup of coffee afterwards or something else that is healthy that you find pleasurable. The carrot sets up an attractor pattern that helps pull you into the new activity.
Each time you perform the new routine keep an eye out for other ways you can make the new activity more pleasurable for you. The goal is to eventually find pleasure within the activity itself.
1) 5-minute rule – this connects to the 3rd element: Action – MAKE IT EASY. The 5-minute rule helps make the new routine easier to perform because there is less perceived effort required which helps your mind to get going into implementing the new behavior.
A critical aspect of turning a new behavior into a habit is how many times you execute the new behavior. It’s not how many days does it take to make a new habit, but how many repetitions of the new action have you done. This rule helps focus you on the importance of getting your reps in. It’s the number of reps that will sear the new action pattern into your neurons so that your neurons grow new and stronger connections between them – making the new behavior pattern easier to start and complete.
2) Don’t miss twice – I have never met a person who is 100% perfect in their execution of any routine behavior. Life happens and there will be times when you will miss your new routine. What often derails many people from forming new habits is when they eventually miss a day. Many people in this situation will feel defeated and get down on themselves and stop attempting to build the new habit altogether.
The don’t miss twice rule gives you some flexibility for the inevitable times when you plan to do a new routine and something gets in the way. You simply acknowledge that you are human and do the routine the next prescribed day.
Ex. You start your morning walk routine at a nice nearby park and walk 5min each morning: Monday through Friday. The following week you increase the time to 10min and on Wednesday you have an early meeting and miss your morning walk. Using this basic rule you continue to use your daily alarm and set up your Thursday morning walking gear and get out there the next day.
Summing It Up
Learning to build new habits takes practice and skill. Use the 4 elements of habit making:
And the 2 new habit rules:
and you will have the power of neuroscience on your side to help you convert new routines into long-lasting habits.
For more information on the science of habit making, I recommend the book: Atomic Habits by James Clear. Most of the content in this article is based on this book.
I hope everyone has a happy and healthy new year!