A lot of New Year’s Resolutions are about breaking the bad habits of the past year/s and replacing them with new good habits. It used to be said that you had to do something five times for it to become a habit. Anyone who has been on a diet or tried exercising will know that if there is a magic number, it is not five. It is probably a much higher number, like 200 perhaps. Five days exercise do not make a new habit.
So why is breaking an old habit so hard?
For starters, the reason you are doing what you are doing now, is that it is in some way rewarded, and usually quite quickly. Why do I eat cheese and chocolate? Because it is yummy and rewards my taste-buds and my entire physiology through BSL (blood sugar levels) and other hormones associated with stocking up on calories and fats against a hard winter. The fact that I never seem to get to the hard winter has failed to register with my genes or my metabolism – they are programmed based on centuries, thousands of years of survival mechanisms. Why do you smoke? Because somewhere in your head it is linked with an immediate reward. Why don’t I exercise? Because lying around reading, or sitting on the computer blogging is more immediately gratifying. It’s all in the conditioning. We are all glorified lab rats responding to our genes and our training.
The principle of conditioning is that behaviour that is rewarded will increase and behaviour that is negatively reinforced (punished or fails to be rewarded) will decrease. If you think about how you train a dog – or your children – it is through the positive reinforcement of behaviours you want (“say please”) and through various forms of punishment or withdrawal of treats and attention in response to negative behaviours.
You are probably familiar with the concept of conditioning through such famous experiments such as Pavlov’s dogs, where he trained the dogs to link the sound of a bell with the idea they were about to be fed. This is Classical Conditioning, where cues in the environment (the bell) trigger the response (salivating). Following on from that was Operant Conditioning, where using the same conditioning principles actual behaviours such as pressing a lever to get a pellett of food could be developed and reinforced in animals. And in you and me, this all works beautifully together. When you see a certain fast-food advertisement (substitute your temptation of choice here), the biochemical response (Classical Conditioning) is triggered and your perform learned behaviours (Operant Conditioning) to get what you desire – you drive to the local fast food shop and purchase your reward.
So getting back to your New Year’s Resolutions. A considerable amount of conditioning has gone into supporting your existing habits, and now you have decided to break those habits, overcome the conditioning. Good for you! Here are a few things you should keep in mind as you make your plans to start your new life.
1. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. Yes, that is a nice way of saying it is not going to be easy, particularly in the beginning. Get the help you need – use nicotine replacement products (but don’t get addicted to them either!), organise to walk with a friend, sign up for a weight-loss program, get a financial planner on-board. Don’t think you need to do it the hard way.
2. Set up some alternate reward systems. Battle conditioning by developing new conditioning. Use the magician’s trick of distraction and misdirection – if you are giving up smoking set up a reward system for yourself that will distract you from what you are missing out on. (Try not to make it food though!) Perhaps you can focus on how much money you are saving and buy yourself something you have wanted for a while. Find something yummy and low-cal to nibble on if you are trying to lose weight, so when you are hungry, bored, stressed or whatever else triggers your eating, you have a ready answer to your craving.
3. Be prepared for the old habit to fight back. In Operant Conditioning what you are trying to do is called Extinction – eliminate a behaviour through removing the reinforcing rewards. But then, the kicker. At first, you might find it is really tough. Your brain wants the reward and it wants to perform the behaviour to get the reward – it wants to return to its comfort zone, stasis, it doesn’t want to go through withdrawal or discomfort. It’s called an Extinction Burst – just as the old behaviour is about to go extinct it has a little explosion in your brain to try to keep the old rewards flowing. Hang in there, hang tough and know it will go away. And if you fall off the wagon, hop back on again as quickly as possible.
This is Part Two in my New Year’s Resolution’s Series. Others are below:
Goal Setting – Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
It’s about the JOURNEY (as well as the goal)
The Harvard Business School Study…or urban internet myths