Living a healthier lifestyle isn’t always down to sheer willpower – it can be as simple as forming new habits. But how do we do that?
Last year, my New Year resolution was to go for a run first thing every morning. It started well: 1 January was a great success. On 2 January, though, I hit snooze and went back to sleep. I tried to get it going again, I really did – I even wore my gym clothes to bed – but nothing worked.
This year, I’ve resolved to wean myself off scrolling mindlessly through social media on my phone, but when it comes to making resolutions – or, rather, breaking them – it feels as though there are forces at work far stronger than my willpower. I know I’m not alone in that; if I were, there wouldn’t be nearly 6,000 books on Amazon under the category “self help – habits”, nor so many psychologists researching the subject. So, could they help me keep my resolution this year?
Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, certainly thinks so. He tells me there is “a ton of research” to show that New Year resolutions are an effective way to make changes: they create a sense of expectation and ceremony, while the link to a particular day helps to fit our experiences into a narrative of before and after, which makes change more likely. “There are people who will decide on 1 January to lose two stone and who will keep it off for the rest of their lives, others who have been smoking two packs a day for over a decade who will decide to quit and who will still not smoke this time next year,” he says. “Anyone can change any habit; it doesn’t matter how old you are or how deeply ingrained that behaviour is. But that doesn’t mean – as everyone knows – that New Year resolutions are consistently successful.
When our New Year resolutions fail, we berate ourselves for our weak self-discipline; we tell ourselves our willpower wasn’t strong enough, as though we are a marathon runner who couldn’t make it to the finish line. The image of a self-control muscle that gets tired over time, first proposed by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister in the late 90s, has shaped our collective consciousness.
But a new generation of psychologists, unable to replicate the studies that proved his theory of “ego depletion”, are questioning this model. They are exploring other factors that might determine whether individuals can stick to their goals, including their motivation and environment, explains Katharina Bernecker, a postdoctoral researcher at Leibniz-Institut in Tübingen, south-west Germany. “The idea of a limited resource is about a capacity or an ability – you can or you can’t – whereas motivation is something that fluctuates. We’re searching for a new theory that tells us more about this process,” she says.
Putting all our New Year resolution eggs in a willpower basket is exactly where we are going wrong, suggests Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. Although studies show that people who have a lot of self-control tend to be good at meeting their goals – if they are motivated to do well at work, they get promoted; if they want to live a healthy lifestyle, they exercise more – it isn’t because they use their willpower to control their behaviour, she explains. In fact, it is because they find a way around it. These individuals score highly on scales that measure their ability to control their actions and resist temptation, but “the interesting thing is that it doesn’t work that way”, Wood says. “What we’ve learned is that people with high self-control are not going through these white-knuckle struggles to eat better, exercise more or work harder. Instead, what they do is form habits. They automate their behaviours that get them to their goals, so they perform them without even thinking about it. That’s what makes them so successful.” It isn’t about willpower; it is about habits.
This epiphany is what turned Gretchen Rubin, the author of the bestselling blockbuster Better Than Before, into the US’s happiness queen. “Habits are freeing and energising and really powerful. If there’s something you want to do consistently in your life – like New Year resolutions – habits can make the wear and tear on following through so much easier. They get us out of the tiresome business of making decisions and using our self-control.”
这一顿悟让畅销书《比从前更好》的作者Gretchen Rubin成为了美国的“快乐女王”。 “习惯是自由和活力，并且真得很强大。如果你想在生活中做一些事情——比如新年决心——习惯会让随之而来的损耗变得容易得多。他们使我们摆脱了做决定和使用自制力时的烦恼。”
Rubin speaks with the authority of a woman who has honed her lifestyle by knowing her weaknesses and how to overcome them: “I don’t have to decide to get up at 6am – that’s a habit for me, on autopilot,” she says.
So, what makes a habit? First, says Bas Verplanken, professor of psychology at the University of Bath, they are automatic, occurring as part of our daily flow. “If going to the gym is a conscious decision, we’re vulnerable, because we have a fantastic capacity to rationalise why we should not go – we’re very, very good at that. Habits protect you against thinking,” he says. Second, they are triggered by cues in the environment, such as time or place. Third, every habit has a reward: when our brain starts to anticipate and crave the reward, it makes the behaviour automatic.
巴斯大学的心理学教授Bas Verplanken说：“如果决定去健身房是意识上的事情，那么，我们就孱弱了，因为我们有一种奇妙的能力来解释为什么我们不应该去——比如，我们还不错，非常好。 惯常的行为会保护你不去思考”。那么，是什么造就了习惯呢？首先，习惯都是自动发生的，是我们日常流程的一部分。第二，习惯经由环境中的线索触发，例如时间或地点。第三，每个习惯都有一个回报：当我们的大脑开始期待并渴望奖励时，它就会让行为自然发生。
Thanks to the boom in research in the field in the past decade, Duhigg tells me, “we’ve seen a golden age in understanding the neurology and psychology of habit formation”. In the first half of the 19th century, psychology research focused solely on observable behaviour – as opposed to what Verplanken calls “what is going on under the hood” – a period known as the behaviourist revolution, led by the psychologist BF Skinner. This was followed by the cognitive revolution, which investigated how we think, as opposed to how habits work, which entails investigating how we can avoid thinking. “It’s only since the turn of this century that we’ve started to realise that the brain is actually made up of multiple systems that are connected, but somewhat separate as well,” says Wood. “One of these is a neural system that learns in a habit way and this is represented in our behaviour in terms of automaticity. All of a sudden, habits started to gain credibility.”
It was neuroscientists who brought habits on to psychology’s radar, since brain scans cast light on mechanisms unfolding in the deepest, darkest recesses of the brain, identifying which parts are activated as a behaviour becomes habitual. “As we repeat actions, we engage different aspects of our neural system and you can actually see habit formation taking place in the brain,” says Wood. “When you have people in scanners, activation starts in the decision-making areas of the brain – the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Over time, as you repeat a behaviour and keep getting that reward, activation shifts more to the basal ganglial areas, particularly the putanem, because we’re no longer thinking actively; instead, we’re responding based on habit.” Wood’s research shows that 43% of what we do every day is performed out of habit. “It’s a shortcut – if you do what you did before, in this context, you’ll get the reward that you got before,” she says.
These insights have significant implications for our New Year resolutions, says Duhigg. “Every habit has three components: the cue, the routine itself and the reward. A huge part of understanding how to change or control your habits is diagnosing the cues and, most importantly, the reward that routine delivers to you,” he says. I cast him in the role of my personal resolution consultant and ask what I need to do to break my phone habit. “The first thing is the terminology,” he says. “Breaking a habit is almost impossible. Once the neural pathways are set with cue, routine and reward, they are there to stay.” Rather than thinking in terms of breaking a bad habit, he says, I need to change my habit by finding a new routine that corresponds to the old cue, one that will deliver whatever reward I am getting from it currently.
I figure out that my cue is flopping on to the sofa after a long day, but I can’t pinpoint what reward it gives me. I suppose there is a voyeuristic pleasure in looking at my friends’ photos on Facebook and I’m interested by articles linked to on Twitter. This is a good start, says Duhigg. “You can easily change this habit; you just need to spend some time experimenting with other routines to see what can deliver something similar to that old reward,” he says.