Why habits are more effective than resolutions
The approach of 2016 has me thinking about resolutions. If you’re a frequent reader, then you know that I am a big fan of Gretchen Rubin, an expert on happiness and lifestyle. In all three of her books and on her blog, she talks about how she keeps resolutions. One of her most recent tips is to choose a “one-word theme” to help clarify an overarching goal. In her blog post, Gretchen explains:
“I love resolutions, and as I wrote about in my book Happier at Home, for the last several years, I’ve identified one idea, summarized in just one word, as an overarching theme for the entire year.”
I took Gretchen’s advice in 2015 and decided to make “Control” my theme for the year. It was time to take control of my anxiety and depression and work hard in fighting both. Since last January, I have been seeing someone who has helped me develop tools to curb my anxiety and fine-tune my ways of thinking. Now, when those depressing thoughts occur, I can control them. I am happy to say that I have grown tremendously and I am a much stronger and happier person than I was this time last year.
After some research, and looking into Rubin’s new book, Better Than Before, I realized that I met my theme or resolution, simply due to the fact that it wasn’t a resolution, to begin with. Instead, I developed a habit.
Habits vs. Resolutions
When I first discovered this, I asked: Aren’t habits and resolutions the same thing?
No, they’re not. Habits succeed where resolutions cannot. Studies show that in order to stick with your New Year’s Resolutions you need willpower. Truth be told, some resolutions aren’t “resolute” enough. They’re too abstract and lack a concrete declaration and goal to work towards. Because of their ambiguity, your brain can’t tackle them.
According to research, in order to achieve your goals, you need to make your resolutions or goals “instinctual.” This aspect is what is missing from 90 percent of all New Year’s Resolutions, and ultimately, why they most likely fail. For example, the resolution to “eat healthily” isn’t very personalized. You need to take that extrinsic goal and internalize it. So, instead of just saying you want to “eat healthier,” you can make the goal to start substituting fruit instead of chips at lunch. Or, if you want to focus on exercise, you can make the goal to go to the gym two-to-three times a week. You need to break down that broad resolution and see what habit, or habits, you can form to achieve your goals.
In 2015, my goal was to “go to therapy once every two weeks and learn how to take control of my life” with the overarching theme of Control. Having that concrete goal made it easy to tackle, and soon enough, it became a routine. I was accustomed to seeing someone once every two weeks, and I also formed a habit of curbing my anxious thoughts and using tools to combat my depression. I found that I would depend on those appointments, and sometimes, I would perform those tools and exercises I learned without even noticing I did them.
That’s the extraordinary thing I learned about forming habits: sometimes you don’t realize when you’ve formed them. Habits are automated responses that are learned through repetition. These “moment by moment” actions are performed by a region in your brain called the “prefrontal cortex.” As soon as the behavior becomes automatic, the prefrontal cortex goes into sleep mode.
Forming habits and breaking habits take a lot of work. The idea can be daunting, but it is not impossible.
“Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life,” Rubin writes in her book, Better Than Before. “We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.”
So this year take the challenge. Instead of making a New Year’s Resolution, try to form a habit instead. After we ring in the New Year, I will share my theme for 2016, and what habits I hope to make, and break, this year.