December 11, 2020
With the New Year approaching, you may be making a list of resolutions. And although resolutions can be great for motivation, many of us fail within days of making our goals. To help, we reached out to Mary Beth Miller, PhD, a clinical psychologist studying health intervention and treatment for people with addictive behaviors, to give us some deeper insights into how habits work. Through her research, she aims to enhance the understanding of how and why people change and teaches people to improve their lives through something called intervention-based habit changing.
Habits are hard to break. It’s science.
Miller studies serious addictions — those that impair your ability to function in your daily life because you feel an intense need for the vice. Now, the more harmless habits such as loving M&M’s won’t keep you from living normally, but it can be hard to give them up because you enjoy them. There’s a reason for this.
Our body handles habits similarly to addictions. When we partake in an addictive behavior or habit, our neurons fire to give the body a rewarding sensation. This reward system tells our body that we’re doing a good thing, causing us to continue it over time. Sometimes this reward system can trigger BEFORE we even do the activity. So, for example, if you have a bad habit of eating too much candy (clearly projecting my own issues here) and see a bowl of M&M’s, your neurons are firing the rewarding sensation before you even eat. It feels good already, so you see no problem with grabbing a handful (even if you’re trying to cut back).
Changing your habits.
So, is it possible to break a habit or change it to something healthier? Miller says yes! She shared five steps to changing your behavior.
Before you act, ask yourself important questions to determine what’s driving you to change your behavior. What is it you want to change? Are you looking for a short-term or long-term impact? What are your current habits that could be contributing to any unhappiness or dissatisfaction? Give yourself time to answer honestly. Once you identify what you really need, you can start working toward making a change.
Set graduated, attainable goals
Figure out if your main goal is extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic goals are externally motivated (losing weight to look good in a bathing suit) and tend to end as soon as your motivation goes away. Intrinsic goals are internally motivated (wanting to learn a new language because it would create a sense of pride to know another language) and are often more sustainable because you truly WANT to do them. Additionally, if your goal is short-term (lose five pounds before a wedding by following a fad diet and working out obsessively) it may not easy to sustain because of extreme restrictions to fit the short timeframe. Long-term goals (lose five pounds by walking for 10 minutes a day just to get fresh air) can be more manageable. Instead of setting one giant goal for the year, aim for small goals that will get you to the desired end point.
Focus on what you will do instead of what you won’t. When you set a goal of restriction, your mind naturally focuses too much on the thing you’re trying to avoid. So, if you’re trying to eat healthier, try saying, “I’m going to add vegetables to every meal,” instead of saying, “I can’t eat cookies anymore.” This will take some of the pressure off and make your goal more attainable.
Plan for high-risk situations
Even in a perfect scenario, when you are set up to succeed, change is hard. So, it’s even more important to plan ahead for moments of temptation or even failure. Ask yourself what you will do when tempted to go back to an old habit. Think of an alternate action to take instead of giving in. For instance, if you’ve been working on eating fewer M&M’s and you’re at a party with a giant bowl in front of you, choose a healthier option, like nuts, instead. You can even take it a step further by having a healthy snack on hand for such situations. It’s easier to avoid giving in when you planned ahead for the temptation.
However, there may be times your plan doesn’t work out and you give in anyway. If this happens, don’t let yourself fall into a situation known as abstinence violation, where you tell yourself that by making one mistake you failed and give up trying entirely. So, if you end up eating a handful of M&M’s at a party, you decide to eat the entire bowl because you already messed up. People also fall into the “I’ll just restart tomorrow” mentality when they make mistakes, but that’s not the best approach. Instead, you should start again right from the point where you gave in. Go easy on yourself and keep trying.
Find an accountability buddy for healthy competition
If you’re trying to make changes in your life, it can be beneficial to find an accountability buddy. Find a friend or family member willing to check in on your progress. It’s even better if you can start a friendly competition with that person. Healthy competition can increase motivation and help you stay focused on your goal. For example, if you have a goal of getting in better shape, use a fitness app on your Apple watch or Fitbit to compete with a friend. Getting notifications that your friend completed a workout will inspire you to lace up your shoes if you haven’t been active yet. It’s helpful for both of you and a great way to stay on track.
Make sure that it’s just a friendly competition and not something that will drive up negative feelings. Avoid competing with somebody who seems perfect to you because it actually may set you back — think of that friend that works out for two hours a day when you’re just hoping to get at least 30 minutes of activity in three times a week. It can be hard to keep going when you feel like you’re failing in comparison. The goal of being accountability buddies is to support and motivate each other.
Continue to self-monitor
It typically takes a minimum of two weeks to form a new habit, and even then, you will still need to push yourself to make that habit an automatic response. To be successful, you’ll need to continue checking in with yourself and looking at what’s driving your decisions. This final step is often skipped, but it’s the most important for helping you achieve your long-term goals.
If you’re ready to break some bad habits, Miller’s steps should help you get to a good place so you’re feeling better in 2021. (Let’s be real, 2020 set the bar pretty low). As you work on changes, focus on how far you’ve come and remember that it’s a process. Nobody is ever going to be perfect all of the time. Wishing you lots of success and a happy New Year. You’ve got this!
Next Steps and Useful Resources
- Check out our 10 doctor-approved New Year’s resolutions