Making Changes That Last: From Self-Help Kicks to Habits

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 12.57.11 AM By Brittany Dingler, '15, Peer Health Educator Corespondent

The changing of seasons often accompanies the rise of self-help kicks - perhaps there’s just something about the looming warmth and summer freedom that makes us want to eat differently, exercise differently, wake up earlier, or start flossing...again. Whatever we choose to do, we likely do it because we get a “rush” from starting over or starting new, even in small aspects of our lives. “This will change everything” we often tell ourselves, when emerging from a rut (such as this long, hard winter) or when simply yearning for a fresh change of pace. It certainly feels good to think that everything will be different but, unfortunately, our reinvented selves hardly ever last - and that’s not our fault.

Why don’t self-help kicks stick? Usually because, as we’ve all seen and experienced around New Years, our self-improvement goals are too big and multifaceted. For example, USA.gov states that “quitting smoking” is the third most popular resolution in the US. However, to quit smoking for good involves addressing a physical addiction, changing or removing oneself from triggering environments, and creating substitute behaviors in response to stressful situations. Dan Diamond from Forbes, however, suggests that self-improvement goals like these are largely unsuccessful because they are complicated, intangible, full of loop-holes, and are so ambitious that we often lack the confidence in our ability and the patience to achieve them.

The key, therefore, seems to be to throw out our lofty, convoluted resolutions in favor of a few simple, small, surmountable habits that can be integrated into our daily life over time. Once it becomes a habit, it joins a cohort of approximately 40% of our actions that we repeat every day, according to the self-help guru, Gretchen Rubin, (2015). This integration is particularly rewarding if the new, positive habit replaces a pre-existing, negative habit - a flip, which is more easily said than done.

So why are habits so powerful? Let’s turn to neuroscience for some insight. In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, he indicts the basal ganglia and the brain stem as the hubs of a dopamine-driven loop that forms and maintains certain repeated behaviors. This loop works as a result of the slight boost of pleasure we feel from the dopamine released in response to a perceived positive behavior. One of the best examples of this from daily life is the compulsive nature many of us have to check texts and facebook notifications. In these instances, whether or not we’re aware of it, we give ourselves a miniature shot of dopamine telling our brain “Hey, that felt good. You should do that again.” It should therefore be no surprise that you hardly ever find anyone looking up in this smartphone era - the boredom of doing nothing, even for one minute, just doesn’t feel as good. Similarly, many of our negative habits overpower our new, positive ones because the latter likely haven’t formed that powerful dopamine-powered circuit that the former have. This internal battle is also helped by the fact that solid, formed habits tend to be somewhat automatic whereas newer efforts tend to be hindered by all the conscious thought processes we go through before we actually carry out the behavior (e.g., “I could get up now to eat breakfast before class but pressing the snooze button to give myself an extra twenty minutes of sleep will make all the difference.”). So how long do we have to wait to make these new habits stick? How long do we have to wait until getting up early without a snooze button no longer feels so painful? A recent study conducted by the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that, on average, participants took 66 days to incorporate a new habit. So, in conclusion, science seems to suggest that to turn a resolution into a long-lasting habit we must break our goals down into small chunks, be disciplined on a daily basis, and - as painful as it might be - wait.

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