With the end of 2014 looming near, and 2015 appearing like a beautiful blank canvas, or dark vacuous black hole, regardless of perspective, resolutions for the new year always emerge. It may be to brush them off and refuse to make even one or to enter the new year with a list of 10 fully intent on keeping every one. Even with the best of intentions, resolutions are difficult to keep because change is hard. It may help to understand why change is so difficult, then steps can be taken in order to counter the brain’s resistance to change and perhaps the realistic resolutions on that list of 10 can be kept.
It’s now common knowledge that brains are plastic and have the ability to change. This change is called neuroplasticity Dr. Doidge explains in his book The Brain that Changes Itself that scientists began seeing “if certain ‘parts’ [of the brain] failed, then other parts could sometimes take over.” However, neuroplasticity not only plays a role when areas in the brain are damaged. It is essentially the basis of all hardwired habits: good and bad. The common phrase reads: neurons that fire together wire together. That wiring together forms the near unconscious behavior that often leads to self admonishment or accolades: the mindless hand movement to eat one more fry, even after feeling full, the compulsory turning off the alarm clock to sleep for 9 more minutes, the turning to go to the gym, even after a 10 hour work day, or the grabbing a bottle of water instead of soda when thirst calls. Therefore, unwiring or unlearning the bad habits and rewiring the good habits will be the ticket to the annual question: How long before the New Year’s Resolution is broken? A day? A week? Two weeks? Use the principles of neuroplasticity, and the Charles Duhigg’s Habit Loop and the response may be 12 months, 2 years, forever.
Step 1. Identify a craving; this is essentially the reward.
Step 2. Create or uncover a cue, which will lead to Step 3.
Step 3. Establish or change or a routine so the craving/reward is met.
Charles Duhigg calls this The Habit Loop: Cue, Routine, Reward. When completed consistently over time, neuroplasticity is the result. The neurons firing together during this three-step process, become wired together and the ‘habit’ becomes automatic. The length of time for a new habit to become just that is dependent upon the source. Decades ago, people misinterpreted Dr. Maltz’s 21 days, which has become the most common number, others say repeat a behavior like working out 10 days in a row and it will become a habit. Charles Duhigg stated that his new habit took a few weeks; however he took many weeks to identify the source, test out new routines and so on. Overall, these numbers are a bit liberal. Phillippa Lally at the University of College London, found that it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new habit. The average length of time was 66 days for the behavior to become automatic. Additionally, it was noted that missing a day or two throughout did not negatively impact the formation of a new behavior. What did affect the time to habituate a behavior was the complexity of the behavior, the behavior of the person and additional environmental circumstances.
Going back to New Year’s Resolutions, begin by identifying the bad habits to kick this year or the good habits to begin. That bad habit or good habit is the routine. In order to change that routine, the reward needs to be identified. For example, smoking is a routine; the reward could be socializing with coworkers during a cigarette break,
taking a break from the job, relaxing. According to Charles Duhigg, it may take some experimenting in order to identify the reward, pick 2-3 possibilities to try. Next find the cue. When does the habit kick in? Is it a specific time? Event? Person? After the cue is identified replace new routines that address the hypothesized reason for the ‘bad habit.’ Afterward, determine if the reward or craving achieved by the bad habit has been achieved with the good one. If so, keep trying it out for a few weeks; if not, try another new routine until the reward has been met.
Once the new routine is ready; a new habit can be formed and the 66, 18 or 254 days or some number in between can begin. Remember, a few missed days here and there does not equate with failure or having to start over. The brain is plastic and just as neurons take time to wire together, they take time to unwire. Given this information, Charles Duhigg’s few weeks is in fact possible, just not common.
Keeping your New Year’s Resolutions is changing your brain, which can change your life. Deciding to change and taking that first step is the most challenging. People often pick the first day of the New Year to begin, but it is never too early or too late to change. The brain is after all plastic and will change at anytime when the effort is put in. Hopefully that cliché has a little more clarity and the first step will lead to 65 more.
What brain changes will you make this year?
Happy 2015! Here’s to a New Year and a New You.