Written by Katie Rosseinsky
Are you finding your motivation ebbing away as we move further and further from 1 January? An expert explains why it’s so hard to form new habits – and how we can get around that to make our resolutions stick.
We’ve nearly reached January’s halfway point, and unless you have superhuman willpower, you might find your motivation flagging when it comes to those new year’s resolutions you set with the best of intentions only a few weeks ago.
There’s no point in berating yourself if you’ve been groggily reaching for the snooze button rather than leaping out of bed at 6am and smashing out a 5k run or if you’ve found yourself scrolling Twitter before bed rather than reading the book on your nightstand. Forming new habits can be seriously difficult.
So, if you’re finding that your initially steely resolve has melted away over the past few days, it’s worth taking a closer look at the way we adopt new behaviours. Why does it feel so hard? And how can we overcome those barriers?
According to Jordan Vyas-Lee, psychotherapist and co-founder of mental health care clinic Kove, habit formation is the process by which we turn behaviour and choices – often ones which take serious effort to make – into patterns of behaviour that are “less resisted”.
How do we form habits?
Habits, he explains, are usually governed by three processes, which make up a loop. First, there is the cue, which tells your brain to “initiate automatic behaviour mode”; then there is the process, or the “desired behaviour actually unfolding automatically”; finally, there’s the reward, which “helps your brain to keep the behaviour prioritised again in the future”. That might be by “triggering powerful neurotransmitters that the brain really enjoys, especially dopamine, the reward transmitter”.
It takes a while to get to this point, though, and the action usually has to be repeated over and over to “slowly teach the mind an automatic process”. A couple of days just isn’t going to cut it.
Conscious decisions are made in a part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, which is also in charge of other complex behaviour including planning, expressing our personality, moderating social behaviour and our short-term memory. “It’s the area of the brain that’s great at doing complex things, but is a slow and effortful area of the brain to be engaging,” Vyas-Lee says. “We use it whenever we’re trying to learn something new and complex.”
When a behaviour becomes more familiar, or even automatic, we can begin pushing complex tasks into the sub-cortical brain regions, he adds. “Think about how driving a car is really hard at first, but over time as your sub-cortical brain regions take over the process becomes second nature.” (The flip side of this, of course, is that once bad habits have become engrained, they can become very hard to break.)
Hacking the habit loop
To get your new habits to stick, it’s very helpful to have a motivation or goal, Vyas-Lee explains. “We largely live by learned behaviour and patterned reflexes and in order to change our daily cycles we really need to input something new into that system.”
One way of doing that is by setting a new, specific goal. “Keeping goals in mind is key towards motivation for new behavioural repertoires and new habit forming,” he continues. So, if your resolution was to move more, why not book yourself in for a specific race or sign up for a particular fitness challenge? Focusing on something specific is the key.
“Remember that without cues for desired behaviour, it’s very hard for the brain to initiate new habit loops and we continue to live by conditioned response – getting the same old results every day,” he adds. One way of reconfirming goals, values and direction every day could be working affirmations into your daily routine, as a way of re-focusing your mind. If repeating them out loud feels too much, why not write your affirmations down in the morning or place a card with a similar message somewhere that’s likely to draw your attention regularly?
Another technique Vyas-Lee suggests is visualisation. “The brain ultimately cannot perform what it cannot see,” he says. “An internal visualised mental map of behaviour is imperative to have before the brain can go about finding ways to get there.”
So, why not take a few moments at the start of the day to imagine yourself achieving your resolutions, and think about how that will make you feel? Some people find it helpful to write down potential achievements as if they’ve already happened (a technique known as ‘scripting’). “Having a clear script written down, that you love and that you return to continually, gives the brain a roadmap to begin working from,” Vyas-Lee adds.
It’s also important to work out a reward system that’s meaningful to you, which will encourage your brain to prioritise these good behaviours again and again before they eventually become a habit. Find a mood-boosting way to treat yourself every time you do something that will help you work towards that bigger resolution. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it’ll almost certainly make sticking to your good intentions that bit easier during the bleakest month of the year.
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