January is the month of magical thinking. Many of us spend the last moments of the old year writing out a list of all that we are going to change in the coming year. We are filled with good intentions and hope that the New Year will sprinkle some fairy dust on us to turn our resolutions into reality. Gyms, exercise classes, and weight loss programs are filled to the brim, but by February their numbers have dwindled and discouragement has set in. We were so sure that paying for a gym membership would inspire us to exercise regularly. All those movie stars lost weight on this diet. Why can’t we?
The difficulty in changing our habits lies in our wiring. Continual repetition of our behaviors and thoughts reinforce neural connections in our brains that are then experienced as habits. Therapist Steven Stosny writes, “Our brains love habits because they conserve energy.” (“Blue-Collar Therapy” in Psychotherapy Networker, Vol.37, No.6) We simply don’t have to think about the things we do every day such as going out to get the morning newspaper. When we travel, however, finding a newspaper is often a much more complicated procedure. We have to think about where to find one and then how to get to that location. We can’t simply rely on our habit of walking to the end of the driveway to pick it up once we’ve put the coffee on. Any change in our routine requires more effort.
When we try to consciously change our habits, we have to exert focused mental attention. Our autopilot system is almost inexhaustible, so it usually wins. If we can’t change our habits by determined control, just how can we? It usually takes a long time and much repetition to reinforce the new behaviors we want to establish and to discourage those we want to eliminate.
We need to ask how the desired habit change relates to our basic values? Thinking that we “should exercise” is not going to be as strong a motivator as the wish to avoid our family’s tendency toward heart disease so we can live long enough to know our grandchildren. It is essential to have strong motivation so that we will put in the effort necessary to change our habit.
While dealing with addiction often requires radical change and abstinence, changing habits is more of a small-step, persistent process. Focus on where you’re headed. Think about the new delicious, healthy foods you’re going to try, rather than the foods you can’t eat. Imagine how good you’re going to feel when you regularly exercise, rather than how you miss collapsing on the couch immediately after work. If you keep at it, six months or a year from now you will see that you really have changed that habit.