Taking control of the habit loop for a better 2022
By David Penney
It would seem that new year’s resolutions are more popular than ever this year.
According to a recent poll by YouGov, 16% of us will be making at least one resolution for 2022 compared to just 11% last year.
Leading the way in their desire for the new year to be catalyst for personal change are young people with more than a third of 18–24-year-olds identifying something they want to achieve in the coming year compared with only 10% of over 55s.
The most popular resolutions are linked to losing weight, improving fitness and living generally healthier lifestyles and these are followed fairly closely by a desire to save more money.
Resolutions at the other end of the popularity scale include giving more money to charity, taking up a new hobby, spending less time on social media and surprisingly giving up smoking – once one of the most popular new year’s resolutions and hopefully a reflection of the decline in the habit generally.
The bad news however, according to YouGov, is that of the 11% of Britons who made new year’s resolution in 2021, more than a quarter failed to keep a single one of them.
The reality is that our habits are incredibly powerful and can be difficult to change - if they weren’t then there would probably be no such thing as new year’s resolutions.
As a species we are hardwired to develop habits – both good and bad – as scientists believe that the brain is continually looking for ways to save effort and become as efficient as possible.
Indeed, it has been a fundamental aspect of the successful evolution of the human race, as an efficient brain needs less room which means smaller heads and safer childbirth.
All habits are established by what is called the habit loop – a three step process that was first bought into the public consciousness by Charles Duhigg’s compelling The Power of Habit, which was first originally published almost a decade ago.
The habit loop consists of the cue (the trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use), the routine (the action, which can be physical as well as mental or emotional) and finally the reward (the outcome which allows the brain to decide is this particular loop is worth remembering in the future).
Why understanding the habit loop is so important – particularly when it comes to changing behaviours as aspired to when setting your new year’s resolutions – is that it reveals a basic, if slightly disturbing, truth; when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.
So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – then the habitual pattern will unfold automatically and according to scientist Ann Graybiel, whose work at MIT helped to establish the existence of habit loops, the fact is that habits never actually disappear.
Unfortunately the brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits and so if you have a bad habit, it will always remain in the darkest recesses of the brain just waiting for the right cues and rewards from the habit loop.
All this explains why it can be so hard for us to change our exercise, eating or financial habits once we have developed a routine, which will forever stay inside our heads.
It is why the concept of the new year’s resolution is such an important one as it recognises in the simplest of terms that only through consciously creating a new neurological routine can we overpower these behaviours and take back control of the habit loop.
It was the great Warren Buffett who said that the chains of habit “are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken but the chains you put around now have enormous consequences as you go through life” and he has not been wrong about too many things in his 91 years.
Regardless of how long it takes – and powerful changes don’t happen overnight – tackling bad habits and replacing them with good ones really is essential if you want to live your best life.
Bad habits have a tendency to hold us back from achieving our full potential, even when we don’t know it, through making us unproductive, unhappy or unhealthy whereas good habits are so often a precursor to all around success.
And ultimately, even if we are unsuccessful in completely keeping our new year’s resolutions and creating those new habit loops that will cement behaviours that are more beneficial to our lives, just the act of making the resolutions can have incredibly positive effects on our lives.
A new year’s resolution reflects an honesty that there are things in life that could be better, and each resolution establishes a clear intent to do something pro-active to make an aspect of your life better and that is a hugely important first step on that journey to self-improvement.
New year’s resolutions are also about positivity. Considering changes to your life indicates that you believe that your tomorrow can be better than today. There is nothing negative about highlighting the old habits you would like change or the new habits you want to acquire – it reflects a fundamental optimism about your life and a positive view of the power that you have to achieve your goals.
New year’s resolutions are also inspirational – not just for you but also the people around you. Your efforts to break that habit that has held you back for years or damages your health not only indicates to others the kind of person you are but can also drive them to make a change as well.
So good luck to all those who have made new year’s resolutions this year. Making meaningful change is never easy but is always worth the effort and if you aren’t quite able to achieve your goal then not to worry – there is always next year.