How to Reset Long-Term Habits & Stick to Your Resolutions
- Written By:Nadja Pinnavaia, Ph.D and founder of Plantable
There’s a saying in Italian: “Chi ben comincia e’ a meta’ dell’opera,” which roughly translates to “getting started is half the job.” And while I love the positivity and catchiness, let’s be honest: experience says this isn’t quite true. Just look at what happens come January. Many of us begin the month with the best intentions: to be our “best and improved” selves. So why is it that approximately 80% of all New Year’s resolutions fail by February?
The Science of Habit
Habits are very powerful for a reason. According to Charles Duhigg in the New York Times bestseller “The Power of Habit,” scientists say that habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. By turning an action into a habit, the brain can essentially kick back until called upon for something more challenging.
Habits are built by cues that prompt certain reactions, which then result in a reward. The more pleasurable the reward, the easier to create the habit. Add a regular sprinkling of dopamine into the equation and now you’ve got more than habit: We have dependency.
So how do we break a habit, especially since the brain loves them? Many people point to pure willpower, but that rarely works, as February stats prove. In fact, simply using willpower to constantly say no makes the job even harder because we feel oppressed and deprived. Instead, we can stack the odds of success in our favor if we understand how the brain works and how to outsmart it.
Stacking the Odds of Success in our Favor
The brain evaluates billions of decisions per day and releases hormones that drive our behavior. Primal actions, such as the desire to eat, sleep and procreate, are driven by the part of the brain called the basal ganglia. When we perform these actions, the brain releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone. Think of it as the “Little Kid” brain — it’s clearly important, but would wreak havoc if left to its own devices.
Now think of another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, as the more “Adult” part of the brain. It implements good judgment and dampens the instincts driven by the Little Kid brain.
However, if we over-expose ourselves to too many dopamine-triggering substances, such as nicotine, alcohol, or sugar, we damage the balance of power in our brains. The Little Kid voice gets louder and louder, increasing the chance the more reasoned Adult brain gives in to its demands.
Retrain the brain with nutritious food
In order to drive habit change, we need to alter what we put into our bodies to generate different biochemical responses. We can apply the following three rules:
- Acknowledge the cue behind the habit
- Understand what is driving the reward and how it makes us feel
- Embrace the cue, but substitute the reward with a different, non-destructive one
When we put nutrient-dense food into our body, our brain receives the nutrients it needs, thereby suppressing ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and instead releasing more leptin, the satiety hormone. This means that if one of our resolutions is to break the habit of crappy snacks, sugar or anything else food-related, a great starting point is not to have your brain screaming out “I’m hungry!” every couple of hours.
Simply by choosing a nutrient-dense meal over a crappy one, you have massively changed the hormonal responses in your body. Boom! Now it’s easier to overrule the Little Kid voice. And each time you overrule it, the next gets marginally easier. You’re now back in control. Soon, the feel-good factor is your new habit, your new normal, your new high.
Each time you deflect the Häagen-Dazs calling your name at 10 p.m., whether it’s with an apple with unsweetened almond butter or with a nice cup of chamomile tea, give yourself an extra reward of an early night snuggled up with some Netflix. Own your successes. Be proud of them.
Very soon, we understand that the voice that tells us things like “Life will never be fun again,” or “Come on, just this once” is just that: a voice. Not a reality. That’s why I started Euphebe: to give people a tool to retrain the brain to love healthy habits and take back control.
By understanding how habits are formed and transformed, we can make the job easier and simpler. We are empowered to build good-for-us habits that keep the Little Kid and the Adult brain in joyous harmony. At that point, maybe the decision to get started really is, in fact, half the job done.