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Turning a New Year’s Resolution Into Actions with the Facts

By: Alina Tugend

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2015   /   Categories: Education

DESPITE the best intentions for the new year, the reality is
that by next month, gym memberships will lapse, chocolate will replace carrots
and Candy Crush will edge out Moby Dick.

It’s not (only) that we’re undisciplined slugs. It’s that much
of what we know — or think we know — about habits is wrong. Here’s a primer
that might help keep you off the couch and on the treadmill.

MYTH 1 We fail to change our habits — or start good new ones — because
we lack willpower.

Not really, said Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and
business at the University of Southern California. Willpower, she said, is more
about looking at those yummy chocolate chip cookies and refusing them. A good
habit ensures you’re rarely around those chocolate chip cookies in the first
place.

To create or change a habit, you have to think much more about
altering your environment and patterns of living than work on steeling your
mind, Professor Wood said, because “behavior is very much a product of
environment.”

Habits — at least good ones — exist so we don’t have to resist
temptation all the time. Imagine if every morning you had a debate with
yourself about eating cake or cereal for breakfast. Instead, most of us form
the habit of eating something relatively healthy for breakfast, which bypasses
the lure of the cake altogether.

That’s why it’s sometimes easiest to start or break a habit
during a major transition. This may sound counterintuitive, but a new house,
job or relationship breaks old patterns, said Gretchen Rubin, author of the
forthcoming book, “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday
Lives.”

“People say wait a few days to get settled, but don’t,” she
said. “Start right away."

MYTH 2 We fall back on bad habits when stressed. In fact, good habits
persist even in times of high anxiety, Professor Wood said. A study of which Professor Wood was
one of the co-authors found that students who already had unhealthy diets would
eat junk food when stressed, but those who already had the habit of eating well
— or of reading a newspaper or of going to the gym — were just as likely to do
that.

MYTH 3 It takes about 21 days to break or make a habit.

That number seems to have cropped up in the 1960s and somehow
became “fact” with no real proof. But in 2009, researchers in Britain decided to take a deeper look by studying how long it took
participants to learn new habits, such as eating fruit daily or going jogging.
The average was 66 days.

But individuals’ times varied greatly, from 18 days to 245 days,
depending on temperament and, of course, the task involved. It will most likely
take far less time to get into the habit of eating an apple every afternoon
than of practicing the piano for an hour a day.

MYTH 4 You need positive thinking to break or make a habit.

“We find positive fantasy is not helpful and may even be hurtful
when trying to reach a desired future or fulfill a wish,” said Gabriele
Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University
of Hamburg.

Over years of research, she discovered that people need to pair
optimistic daydreams about the future with identifying and imagining the
obstacles that prevent them from reaching that goal — something she calls
mental contrasting.

Say you want to stop being a procrastinator. The first step is
easy. Imagine how it will feel if your work is completed with plenty of time to
spare, if you can sleep instead of pulling an all-nighter, said Professor
Oettingen, author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking.”

But don’t just resolve to stop procrastinating. The second step
is to identify what holds you back from changing yourself. Is it fear that you
won’t succeed? Is it the adrenaline rush of frantically working at the last
minute? Is it because of negative feelings toward a boss or teacher?

The mental contrasting needs to be in the right order. It’s
important to “experience our dreams, then switch gears and mentally face
reality,” Professor Oettingen said.

Doing it the opposite way — imagining the obstacles and then
fantasizing about changing habits — doesn’t seem to work as well, research shows.

MYTH 5 Doing things by rote, or habit, isn’t good in most cases. It’s
better to be mindful of everything we do.

Research shows that most people repeat about 40 percent of their
activities almost every day.

“We only have so much room in our brain,” said Ian Newby-Clark,
an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada. “It
would be incredibly taxing if we had to mindfully plan every step of our day.”
Habits free us up so we can think about other things.

And while some habits are objectively bad — smoking, say, or
being consistently late — most are subjective. “Habits are only good or bad to
the extent they’re consistent or inconsistent with your goals,” Professor Wood
of U.S.C. said. It’s a bad habit when “it starts interfering with other goals
you have.”

For example, many people said their resolution this year was to
cut down the time they spend online.

But why? Because it’s an inherently bad thing to do? Or is it an
obstacle to spending more time reading books or riding a bike or learning to
knit?

After thinking about it, you may choose to spend less time on
your computer or phone. Or you might decide it’s not so terrible in limited
doses and shed the habit of feeling guilty about it.

MYTH 6 Everything in moderation.

“There’s a real difference among people about how easily they
adapt to habits,” Ms. Rubin said. Some see habits as liberating; some see them
as a trap. Some prefer to make a huge change all at once; others proceed step
by step.

“I’m in the small minority that loves habits,” Ms. Rubin said,
adding that she tends to find it easier to abstain from certain things
altogether. For example, she eats no carbohydrates.

“People said I was doomed to failure, but it’s not true,” she
said. But, she noted, “it’s a mistake to think the abstainer is more
disciplined. For me it’s easier to be an abstainer than have to deliberate each
time whether I can eat something or not. Others would go nuts if they abstain.”

That’s why you shouldn’t listen to people who tell you you’re
doing it wrong if it works for you, she said.

Also, people shouldn’t fear that their habit will dissolve if
they don’t practice it daily.

“If you lapse once or twice, you’re not ruined,” Professor Wood
said. “That’s a misconception.”

And that leads to ...

MYTH 7 Shame and guilt keep you on track.

No. People need to be kinder to themselves, showing
self-compassion if they lapse, Ms. Rubin said. But it’s a fine balance between
treating yourself kindly and making endless rationalizations and excuses.

“I might mindfully make an exception,” she said, such as
choosing to eat a traditional Christmas cake every year. “But I’m not making
excuses in the moment: I’ll hurt the hostesses’ feelings. You only live once.
It’s the holidays.”

One last piece of advice: If you want to be in better shape, get
a dog. Professor Wood said studies show dog owners have lower body mass
indexes. But here’s the catch: That’s only true if you walk the animal.


 

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