New year… New decade… New energy for a lot of people. Maybe you’re not so lucky, but regardless of where you find yourself on the spectrum of health, wellness and your general outlook on life right now, I want to talk about taking what’s new and making it old. As in routine. Habit.
From McAnally HB and Darnall BD, The Pragmatism of Habit in Preoperative Optimization (2019)
By permission of Oxford University Press
We humans are funny creatures with a very short attention span generally. More important than attention span though, I think we all know how quickly we run out of steam when it comes to keeping our New Year’s resolutions. Let alone the things we know we should do, but don’t even have the motivation to make a resolution about!
I don’t mean to knock motivation. It’s really important. And thank God for the paid Energizer Bunnies out there who inspire us to change our ways for the better, whether in terms of what we are putting in our mouths, or spending our free time, or more important than all that, how we are conducting ourselves toward other human beings, and toward our Creator.
Those goosebumps and new workout gear rarely make it to Tax Day though as I can attest to personally. How do we really overcome our bad habits, and replace them with good ones? The question actually answers itself. We really only change through habit-forming. For better or for worse. It may seem like common sense, but scientists have to validate everything, and to cite one of the largest recent systematic reviews (a form of research that analyzes previous research with rigorous statistical methods) of over 100 previous investigations: “The most sustainable mechanism for maintenance is to develop automaticity for the newly adopted behaviour” [Kwasnicka, et al, Health Psychol Rev. 2016; 10:277-96].
There’s a lot of good science out there now looking into this whole issue of habit and routine. A lot of it comes from the world of psychology of course, but new discoveries from the world of neurobiology increasingly corroborate that:
a) Without formation of habit [which seems to take a little over two months in most cases] real sustained change is pretty rare.
b) The process of habit formation takes a lot of energy up front (so motivation comes in handy here) but becomes a whole lot easier let alone more efficient as new synapses form, and other irrelevant synapses are “pruned.”
c) It’s never too late.
Again, not to knock motivation - it’s absolutely necessary. I think of motivation as the rocket boosters getting the space shuttle off the ground into orbit. There’s only so much energy (fuel) though that we can burn and those boosters have to fall off pretty quickly. And if that shuttle hasn’t achieved orbit with sufficient reduction in the effect of gravity, well, it’ll be a pretty short flight.
As Dr. William James (the “Father of American Psychology”) said well over 100 years ago,
the great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy… we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and as carefully guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free.
-William James, 1899
But back to the main point: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” as the old proverb goes. We must implement those intentions, and it takes careful planning to do that. Mapping out the obstacles and contingincies is essential. “Burning the boats” as the ancient Roman commanders used to do (so their soldiers couldn’t run back into them and take off) may be necessary. There are probably a half dozen or more simple solutions for every health-related behavioral challenge (e.g., put your high blood pressure medicine bottle in front of your alarm clock or in your shoe so you can’t get by it. Put an exercise bicycle in front of your TV so you literally can’t watch the thing without at least sitting on the bike.) Come see us, or a good counselor if you need more help and accountability.
Above all, don’t get discouraged. Yes, it’s hard work at first. But once you’re in orbit (two months, remember) it gets a whole lot easier. And the view from there sure beats 6 feet under!