January newsletters often discuss resolutions or making a fresh start – everyone has high hopes that this year will be better than the last. But too often those resolutions don’t make it past the first week or two. In fact, a recent study found that 64% of resolutions made on New Year’s Day are broken within a month.
A New Year’s resolution is a promise that you make to yourself to start doing something good or stop doing something bad on the first day of the year. Simply a way that people would like to behave or things they want to get done. They generally do not come with a plan or any kind of structure. Resolutions often relate to health and wellness, such as to quit smoking, or cut sugar out of your diet, or to start going to the gym. So rather than a blanket ‘resolution’ it is recommended by experts that people consider the psychology of habits. The psychological motivation to kick-start new habits is known as the fresh-start effect. But motivation is not enough to overcome ingrained habits of behavior. We need to enlist the subconscious to help us change habits we have been repeating for years.
Habits are often triggered by a particular situation or event, like having a cigarette after dinner, or watching TV on Saturday morning. The action is associated with the trigger (finishing dinner or getting up on Saturday) and the reward (the nicotine or the TV show). This association is called the habit loop and is completed by your subconscious.
The behavior becomes routine once the trigger or cue is activated. “The first step to changing your behavior is to create an awareness around what you do regularly,” explains Dr. Lisa Marsch, an expert in behavior change at Dartmouth College. “Look for patterns in your behavior and what triggers the unhealthy habits you want to change.” Most resolutions only involve the routine, not the trigger or the reward. Experts suggest that we make a conscious choice to replace the old habit loop by recognizing the trigger and replacing the routine with something that is more pleasurable than the original reward. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg suggests the following steps to change a habit.
Step 1: Identify routine
Become aware of the habit loop that surrounds the behavior you wish to change. Identify the cue, the routine, and the reward. For example, someone might feel stressed (cue), eat chocolate (routine), feel a sugar rush (reward).
Step 2: Create new rewards
To break the habit loop you’ll have to find new rewards that scratch that same/similar itch. Rather than eat chocolate you might try a fancy cup of tea.
Step 3: Map your cues
For step 3, you’ll identify the cues and triggers which trigger your reward-giving habit routine.
When you find yourself caught up in the routine make a note of:
- location (e.g. your house)
- time (e.g. after work)
- emotional state (e.g. stressed)
- people around you (e.g. your spouse)
- your last action (e.g. picking up after your kids)
Before long, you’ll start to identify patterns.
Step 4: Avoid your cues
Now you know your cues, you can take steps to avoid them. These could be little changes, like sitting on the patio for a few minutes after work with a cup of tea. Old habits may be easier to change by combining the cue-avoidance with a new reward structure.
Structure and routine are foundational to Rose Hill’s treatment programs. Helping individuals with mental illness to structure their daily activities in a healthy manner also helps them build life-long habits. This is where patience comes in. Rose Hill’s Medical Director, Christina Zachar, MD credits the more long-term (6-9 months) length of stay for the more long-term recovery experienced by many Rose Hill graduates. Having the patience to practice new healthy habits like medication compliance, mindfulness, and routine over the longer length of stay helps Rose Hill residents make these behaviors a part of their lifestyle permanently.