At the beginning of the New Year, many of us think about making positive changes in our lives. But New Year’s Resolutions are notoriously easy to forget, and ‘by the wayside’ is where they’re often destined to remain after the first few weeks of the year. Why is it so hard to change our habits, and what can we do to make them stick?
The Centre for Well-Being at nef looked into these questions as part of a piece of research produced for the Department of Health in the UK and Sciencewise; as did a study by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). Their work showed that the better we understand ourselves, the more likely we’ll be able to harness the power it takes to make lasting changes.
Listen to yourself
Some of the advice we can glean from the research is easy to understand. It makes good sense. It tells us that if we are to change our behaviour in any meaningful and long-lasting way, our efforts need to be aligned with our personal interests. We are unlikely to act on our intentions unless they are really what we want. As a friend of mine used to say, we can’t stick to resolutions because they’re always promises to be a little bit less like ourselves. For a new habit to become embedded, the motivation to change has to come from within, driven by our own desires and ideas about what is important in life.
How to break a habit
It is the nature of a ‘habit’ to be hard to break. Even when we’re consciously deciding to make a change, with the best intentions in the world, we don’t always feel in control of what we do. So often, our internal ‘auto-pilot’ takes control, taking the same old routes to the same old destinations. The analogy of the autopilot is useful, because it describes the pull of the familiar and the tendency we have to stick to what we’re used to. The safety of the status quo is its familiarity, but holding on rigidly to what we already know is counter-productive when there’s something we want to change.
Encouragingly, people taking part in the RSA research found that just knowing about the tendency to go on auto-pilot helped them to keep it in check. What they found was that acknowledging the difficulties in making changes helped them to find more realistic starting points, and to notice more of those tiny moments when the opportunity to make a new decision arises. These are usually overruled by the autopilot, the part of your mind that persuades you to think you can get somewhere more quickly and easily by following what you already know. A lasting change is built of many, many steps in the same direction, taken each time you’re faced with the decision to either follow suit or to forge a new habit. Over time these little steps gain momentum and shape our overall direction of travel. We carve out new flight paths, and slowly, step by step, reprogram our autopilots. The change becomes the new habit.
Change your social context
Something else that makes old habits hard to break are how much they’re connected to the people around us. We are social beings, and can quite often get stuck in collective ways of thinking. It’s rare that we make decisions in isolation. Most of us appreciate how helpful it can be to not have to feel we’re going it alone. But we should be prepared to spot ‘groupthink’ when its happening.
The number of hours we work is a good example of how we allow our decisions to be influenced by the people around us. We might know we’re working too much and want to reduce the hours we’re doing, but we may feel worried about what other people in our team, organisation or industry will think of us, and how it will affect our career progress.
It can be useful to take a moment to reflect on what feels most important to you. Does the team have to come first? Why is it wrong to want more time to spend doing something else that you want to do? As well as thinking about these issues alone, discuss it more, with different groups of people. Gather as many perspectives, experiences and ideas as possible to see what small changes feel feasible for you.
The social context we’re in affects the choices we make. Having the right people around you - those that inspire you, and those who realise when you’re on to something worthwhile - makes it more possible to break bad habits and make the changes you want to.