New years resolutions

Overcoming Bad Habits Doesn't Come via Resolutions

There is a reason New Year's resolutions tend to fail

Mathew MacQuarrie

So what is it going to be this year? Finally committed to sticking to a fitness routine to lose those 10 pounds you’ve piled on as they inch closer to a bulging 15? Determined to find a healthier fix to replace that routine of puffing down a pack of smokes a day? Or maybe you’ve decided that you’re no longer going to waste time on those negative people in your life who drain you of all your positive energy?

Whatever it is, chances are, this isn’t the first time you’ve found yourself making some monumental resolution to kick a bad habit, to only find yourself still stuck in the same rut as yet another 12 months come to a close. But hey, you’re not alone. According to a 2015 U.S. News report, roughly 80 percent of all New Year’s resolutions fizzle by February, less than two months into those full-fledged commitments we’ve made to start anew. 

Of course, most of those bad habits are far more complex than we tend to think, which makes those New Year’s resolutions that much more challenging to meet. Neuroscientists with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) contend that our habits are, in fact, made up of a number of smaller behavior routines, which the brain groups together in a single routine, as part of a process known as “chunking.” Think of it this way: as simple as it might seem, the routine of brushing your teeth is actually made up of a number of smaller actions: picking up our toothbrush, squeezing toothpaste onto it and then lifting the brush to our mouth.

A new MIT study, intended to dig a bit deeper into the science of “chunking,” found that certain neurons in the brain are responsible for marking the beginning and end of these chunked units of behavior. According to the MIT report, the neurons, located in a brain region highly involved in habit formation, fire at the outset of a learned routine, sit idle while the routine is carried out, then fire up again once the routine has ended.

To assume self-discipline and willpower can be harnessed by saying so, is…well, it’s magical thinking.

With that said, the complexity of a habit as simple as brushing one’s teeth is a glaring revelation that successfully breaking a really bad one, requires more than some casual commitment sparked by the eager anticipation of a new year. Not to mention the fact that most of us are as good at making excuses for why we can’t stick to the plan, as we are at coming up with the idea itself, which essentially only helps to fuel a perpetual saga of another New Year’s Resolution gone awry.

However, you might be surprised to learn that one of the major things that might be hindering you from actually kicking that bad habit, is the fact that you should never make it a New Year’s resolution to begin with. “A New Year’s Resolution is, at best, an attempt to jump-start our less then productive lives. “Unfortunately, more so than not, it’s building a house of hope on an infatuated foundation of wishful thinking,” says Dr. Joseph Luciani, a practicing clinical psychologist who talks extensively about the power of “self-coaching” in his books. “With habits, and with life itself, typically there are no free lunches. To assume self-discipline and willpower can be harnessed by saying so, is…well, it’s magical thinking.”

Dr. John Bargh, author of the book, Before You Know It, which focuses on showing people how to control their habits, says New Year’s Resolutions typically don’t work because they rely on conscious intentions that are not very reliable. “We forget them, or rationalize we can always do it later. After all, over and over, year after year, they don’t work,” notes Dr. Bargh, who works as a social psychologist at Yale University.

Nir Eyal, who has spent years studying human behavior, says one of the biggest issues with New Year’s Resolutions is that they tend to be bound by a certain timeframe and don’t allow for failure. “What happens is that people give themselves a hard, New Year’s resolution. But…without understanding what is going to trip you up and planning ahead for what you’re going to do when you fail, it doesn’t work,” explains Eyal, who advises companies on consumer habits. “It happens when people say, ‘I’m going to give up sugar forever.’ But then they eat their first cookie and it’s followed by 20 more because they say, ‘What the hell, the seal has been broken.’ We have to make sure we plan for failure appropriately.’”

Eyal says the best approach to changing a bad habit is to focus on the process and not the outcome. “You can’t necessarily control the outcome,” he notes. “There are so many exogenous factors when we make a goal. You might say, ‘I want to run a marathon,’ but then you hurt your knee and now you can’t run anymore, so you’re not gone to meet your goal. Instead, you might want to set a process where you say, ‘at 8:30 to 9:00, every morning, I’m going to go for a brisk walk or run’.”

Eyal suggests beginning the process by modifying some of the smaller behavior patterns that are inherently linked to the bigger issue, which helps to reshape how one identifies with the bad habit, making it more natural to resist the urges of the behavior all together. He calls it, progressive extremism.” “If you think about someone who defines their identity as a vegetarian, they don’t see a hamburger and think, ‘oww, I wonder if I should have one,’” says Eval. “A devout Muslim doesn’t look at a beer and say, ‘oww, I wonder if I should have a drink,’ because it’s (not) part of their identity. It wouldn’t cross their mind. It’s something they just wouldn’t do.”

Dr. Luciani recommends replacing the bad habit with a positive one. “Neuroscience tells us that habits are literally, hard-wired into our brain, which is why bad habits are so resistant to change,” he says. “In order to begin rewiring your brain you must begin to neutralize the bad habit and replace it with a more positive, adaptive habit. How? Practice, practice, practice.”

And Dr. Bargh says it’s important not to totally rely on willpower when trying to break a habit. “The people who are the most successful at self-control do not use willpower,” contends the psychologist. “They set up their world, structure their day, to include their new good habits as routines. They do not buy the tempting desserts or whiskey bottles in the first place, so they are not in their home as temptations even if the temptation does arise. Construct your world, your surroundings, to support and help you do what you truly want to do.”

Regardless of the approach, one thing seems perfectly clear: the first step to ditching a bad habit lies in being honest with yourself about whether you’re truly committed to changing the behavior, whenever you decide to start the process.