New year, new luck

There’s something about new beginnings. When about to fill a blank canvas, we want to do it right. With the new year everyone feels hopeful and wants to make a fresh start. Smokers decide to quit and couch potatoes take up running or some other promising workout. If we’ve gorged ourselves on roast turkey or cheese fondue, we commit to Veganuary.

My friend and mentor, David Holzer, recently wrote about the dangers of Dry January for full-blown alcoholics (he’s been sober for over ten years now). Back when he was drinking, David stuck it out for a month, but couldn’t wait to start drinking again on February 1st.

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Photo credit: Fil Mazzarino

I think we’ve all experienced that it takes more than a New Year’s resolution to produce a change in our lives. Especially if our habit is a serious addiction. It helps to develop an understanding of how habits work and how we can tell unhealthy from healthy habits. But the most pressing question seems to be: How do we make it stick?

How to tell the bad from the good

Healthy habits make us feel good about ourselves. They include everything from making our bed or showering after we get up to writing morning pages or playing the piano. Small every day rituals provide structure and help us feel energized and satisfied. Not-so-healthy habits have the opposite effect. Even though we may tell ourselves that they relax or reinvigorate us, we usually don’t feel happy after indulging in them. I may insist that scrolling on social media is my way to unwind, but afterwards I’m always disgruntled and my mind feels murky.

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Photo credit: Danielle Maccines

Traditionally, a New Year’s resolution is an attempt at getting rid of bad habits or establish beneficial ones. Here’s some good news from cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy: Bad habits can be reversed with awareness training and replacement behaviors. Whenever the impulse for the harmful habit crops up, try to notice it and resort to your chosen healthy activity. This doesn’t address underlying trauma or causes of addiction. But replacing the bad with the good can go a long way for recovering addicts.

How do we make it stick?

The best intentions evaporate when it comes to making the new habit happen. We know full well that our new routine will improve our overall wellbeing, but we still end up making excuses.

One possible explanation for this is our lizard brain. This primitive part of our brain (the amygdala in the lymbic system) allows us to react to a threat in a split-second, without having to process too much information and ensuring our survival. Our lizard brain doesn’t label doing something new as safe. Part of us is literally scared to death, when we venture into new territory.

Unfortunately, the lizard brain is also connected to our logical brain, which comes up with perfectly valid reasons for not doing something. When the alarm rings half an hour early, we’re convinced that it will be much healthier for us to stay in bed a little longer instead of getting up to meditate.

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Photo credit: Kinga Cichewicz

When trying to form a new habit, much comes down to outsmarting the lizard brain, until the new activity becomes almost second nature, like brushing our teeth.

How to outwit the lizard brain

Many schools of thought, from Kundalini yoga to cognitive-behavioral psychology, agree that it takes about 40 days (or six weeks) for a new habit to plant permanent roots. Here are a few tips for the transition phase. They increase our chances of not ending up more frustrated than before.

  1. Set yourself a realistic goal. If you wish to build a daily yoga practice, commit to a feasible amount, like 10 to 20 minutes. Actually doing your practice, increases your chances of coming back to it the next day.
    The neurotransmitter dopamine is in charge of our motivation-reward mechanism. Dopamine gives us that sense of pride and accomplishment after overcoming our weaker self. This ensures that we stay motivated to learn and we come back for more.
  2. Regularity beats length. Even if you end up doing only five minutes one day, that’s better than skipping altogether. Again, even a tiny burst of dopamine will keep your motivation going.
  3. Same time, same place. For the first 40 days, stick to the same time and place. Meditate every morning from 7.00 am to 7.20 am in a designated corner of your home. Repetition creates familiarity, which the lizard brain translates to safety.
    It also helps to have something that cues you in, like lighting a candle, drinking a glass of water or setting your phone to airplane mode. Signals help us transition into the activity that can seem daunting.
  4. Intrinsic motivation. If your New Year’s resolution is to ditch a harmful habit, pick a beneficial activity to substitute it with. Make sure it’s something that truly gives you pleasure. A motivation that stems from a previous positive experience — as opposed to you promising yourself an external reward — is more likely to sustain you when your resolve falters.
  5. Find expanders. Human beings are programmed to learn from others. Our mirror neurons help us replicate the behavior of others when we see it. Find someone that has succeeded in achieving what you want, like cooking one home-made meal a day. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone you know personally or from the media, as long as they inspire you and you can use that momentum.
  6. Find a buddy. Some people work better as a team. If it helps, find a buddy and set a realistic goal together. Meet up for daily workouts or form a book club with friends. Making a commitment to show up for others holds us accountable.
  7. Be kind to yourself. We need to be disciplined to establish a new habits. For me personally, a great sense of wellbeing also came from learning to relax around my iron-clad plans. If you end up skipping a day during the first 40, forgive yourself and come back the next day.

As for the lizard brain: If your grandmother was overly worried about you trying something new and potentially life-changing, how would you react? You would give her an affectionate pat on the back and say: “Don’t worry, grandma, I’ll be alright!” And you’d go bungee-jumping anyway.

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Photo credit: Blake Wheeler