Why do we keep trying the same methods year after year knowing they won't work?
Here's where we need to understand habits and the nature of our brains. In my January e-newsletter I refer to an article by Kelly Traverse, MD and Betty Kelly Sargent that demonstrates how and why brains form habits - it's in our hard wiring - habits are harder to break once established, and can take time to adopt. The authors state "although your brain can change, it usually won’t do so without putting up a bit of a fight. That’s because it is set up to resist change, especially sudden change."
Many of us have heard the phrase, "it takes 21-days to form a new habit". Unfortunately, this may not be the case. Recent research suggests that it may actually take an average of 66 days to adopt a new habit. But that average is based on a lot of variables, like the individual and the type of habit they were trying to change. In truth, adoption of a habit can take quite a bit longer. Moreover, research indicates that easier activities more readily turn into habits than do more difficult activities and, the better you are at sticking to the new activity early on, the better your chances for success.
So what does all of this mean to us?
Here’s where willpower comes into play. Many of us try to form new habits or break old ones by invoking our willpower, which like a muscle, fatigues. Just when we need our willpower the most - like when we come home tired, hungry, and irritable after a long day at the office - is when it will most likely fail us. Why? Because we have spent the entire day exercising our willpower, i.e. not snapping at a co-worker when they frustrate us, avoiding the donut in the break room, and so on. The repeated flexing of our willpower makes it harder for us to maintain our new objectives. As Shawn Achor points out in The Happiness Advantage, “willpower weakens the more we use it”. Worse still, many of us berate ourselves for not being able to "do it", a feeling that reinforces itself as we seem to be unable despite our determined efforts.
So if our willpower won’t work, and up to 60% of us fail in achieving our new year’s resolutions, how can we make lasting, sustainable changes, and break habits that don’t serve us?
In her article, Meditation Can Reduce Habitual Responding, Heide Wenk-Sormaz, PhD, explains how establishing a meditation practice can assist us in breaking unwanted habits. Her study indicates that individuals who practiced meditation were better able to notice when they were about to do something out of habit and then make more conscious choices. While her study didn’t focus on people adopting new habits, it stands to reason that if one becomes more mindful throughout the day and is aware of when he/she is going to respond out of habit, then one would be more mindful when incorporating new habits too.
Practice Engaging Your Inner WisdomDo you have a regular meditation practice? If so, see if you can maintain your awareness throughout the day, noticing when you are responding to something out of habit. Then gently make a choice based on awareness rather than automation. If you have never meditated and want to learn more, check out Thrive! - The Living Well Show's introduction to meditation where I interviewed leading meditation experts. Consider taking a meditation class. Even practicing deep abdominal breathing for 5 minutes a day, can help to make you more present. Do this by breathing in through your nose to a count of 4 (this number doesn't change), and blowing out softly through rounded lips, making a wind-like sound, to a count of 8, 10 or 12. As you practice this technique your exhalations will lengthen (they may surpass a 12 count) and your inhalations will deepen.