New Year’s Resolutions – Beating the Odds, Being Successful
by Kent Bailey, ND
Here we are again. A few months into 2015... how did you do? Do you have your life in order as you promised yourself on New Year’s Day? What was the target going to be this year? Smoking? Sugar? Alcohol? The gym? Spending more time with loved ones? Being more positive?
The list goes on and on.
For those of you that are still on the wagon, congratulations. For those of you who have fallen off and running to catch up, don’t worry, let’s talk about it.
What is it that makes changing habits so difficult? Why do we struggle to be who we want to be? Why is that ideal life so elusive? We know in our minds what we want, right?
What is a habit?
According to Merriam-Webster, a habit is “a behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiological exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance.” In other words, a habit is our brain’s ability to automate a particular behaviour.
Automation means to be able to do something without thinking about it. Ever drive home from work and not remember the trip? That’s automation—your brain completed the task and left you with the time to daydream and sing along to your favourite after-work radio tunes.
Why do we form habit and automate our behaviour?
There are at least two reasons why we form habits:
- Automating a task provides our brain with more free time to focus on other tasks. For example. Riding a bike. Remember back to when you first started to ride. It required a lot of focus and concentration to figure it out. The more you did it, the easier it became until you didn’t have to think about it at all. Your mind had written a computer program which automated the process of bike riding. The writing process requires the conscious part of your mind (ie. the part that you are aware of) to focus, and put effort into learning something. Writing this program is like writing the instructions on bike riding on a chalkboard. The first time you write the instructions on the chalkboard, there are no guidelines to follow on the board. It is very slow going as you have to create the instructions out of nothing. Each time you practice, you write the instructions again and again OVER TOP of the existing instructions that you wrote last time you practiced. This makes the instructions darker, clearer, and easier to read. You will also edit and refine the instructions, improving them based on your experience. Also, added into the mix is that you are rewarded with improving your bike riding ability. You may get praise from a parent, or maybe even a cookie, or some other reward at the end. These rewards provide incentive to the brain to practice and run the computer program again and again. The more you practice the task, the more automated the program becomes. Eventually, the program can run partially, or even completely unsupervised—you now have a habit or developed skill. The program has by now shifted from the conscious part of our mind, to the unconscious part.
- Anticipation. Our mind, especially the unconscious part of it, likes to predict what is coming in the future. Much of the future, in reality, is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Lack of control in situations makes us feel vulnerable and nervous/anxious. If we can predict even a small part of our day (ie. the outcome of our habit), then it gives the mind a sense of control and certainty... allowing us to feel calmer and more secure. Even if the habit is unhealthy, our brain favours the devil we know versus the devil we don’t know. That is, the unconscious mind would rather eat that unhealthy fast food and know we’ll feel unwell in about an hour, rather than eat that healthy food and feel different than what our body is used to. Everything about a new habit creates uncertainty in the unconscious mind—it knows it is going to have to relearn a behaviour. It knows the body and mind are going to feel different... let’s face it, the unconscious mind is the old dog that doesn’t want to learn new tricks. It is resistant and lazy.
How do we entice the mind to learn something new?
As in training dogs, children, and just about any other animal, there are two styles of training: Reward based and correction (punishment) based.
There are a multitude of books written on this. The crux is finding what works best for you. Long story short, reward based training is associated with a healthier outcome. Correction/punishment based results in the person becoming more prone to depression and anxiety.
Reward yourself with immediate, small rewards when you accomplish the new behaviour. For example, each time you go a day without smoking, put money in a jar that equals the number of cigarettes you used to smoke. Before long, you will have enough for a long term reward, perhaps a hot holiday, or a new toy for yourself. It can add up fast depending on how much you smoke.
When trying to establish a new habit, two things are happening. The conscious part of the mind is trying to write a new program on the chalkboard, but the subconscious part of the mind is still trying to run the old automated program from the other chalkboard. This results in people experiencing an inner conflict between what they want and the devil on their shoulder. The devil is just that old automated program trying to run its course. The great thing is, that just as practicing a new habit makes the chalk marks darker and darker on the new chalkboard, practicing a new habit also rubs an eraser lightly over the old chalkboard with the undesired behaviour. Each time you overcome the desire to do the old habit (ie. succumb to the subconscious minds desire to run the old program), you are rubbing the eraser lightly over the old program. Each time you do this, the old program becomes weaker and quieter, and eventually goes away.
Remember those cookies after each bike ride? Well, those rewards can trigger our minds into re-running either a desired (as in the case of bike riding), or an undesired (e.g. smoking) program. Cravings for smoking can be triggered by stress, coffee, certain friends, or coworkers.
So the bottom line is practise, practise, practise. Are you the same person you were ten years ago? Of course not. Are you going to be the same person ten years from now? Become who you want to be. It is up to you to train your brain.
Once a habit is formed, the stress of learning is gone, and your brain can enter a comfort zone of familiarity. The mind can have a tendency to prefer the new known habit. The automated part of the mind prefers to keep the status quo. It’s easy to just keep doing the same old thing over and over. The brain requires fewer calories to run an old well-established program that runs a habit, than it does to write a new program for a new habit.
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Update on my winter biking experience (article in Jan/Feb ’15 WHOLifE Journal)
This has been a great winter to try winter biking—a lot of warm weather with a few weeks of bitter cold. Not too bad at all. Even in the cold snaps, being on the bike is very warm and pleasant. I am a stickler for using multiple layers of clothing. There were even some cold days that I was getting too hot. My calculations for what I saved are way off. As you know, gas prices have been low (which is great).
In the first two months of my new habit, I averaged just under 20 km per week. Less than I had estimated (30 km), but this got most of my small errands done such as picking up kids from school, getting moderate amounts of groceries, and miscellaneous tasks. For the serious cyclist, 20 km per week is very low, but for anyone who just wants to jump on the bike for everyday errands, it is a great way to feel good and keep fit. You can do it too.
Dr. Kent Bailey is a registered naturopathic doctor (ND) in Saskatoon. For more information, you can visit www.axiomhealth.ca or call (306) 955-7707. Also see the colour ad on page 28 of the 20.6 March/April issue of the WHOLifE Journal.