Resolutions v Habits

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit

Will Durant, American author

It’s that time of year when many of us start to feel guilty because we’ve already given up on our New Year’s Resolutions. If that sounds like you, then I have a suggestion – try thinking about establishing new habits, rather than setting bold resolutions.

Almost everything we do is a habit. Some of them do us good, like brushing our teeth, and some of them are maybe not so helpful – like having biscuits with every cup of tea you drink (guilty as charged!).

Our brain is an incredible thing. Every day we take around 20,000 breaths, and very rarely do we think about that. Our subconscious brain is wired to take care of this – and a lot more besides, leaving our conscious brains to work on the important stuff. The problem arises when we repeat something often enough that responsibility for it shifts from our conscious to our subconscious brain – we start doing something automatically, without really considering whether it’s a good idea or not.

This can be with little, relatively unimportant things – perhaps you always chew a pen when you’re thinking, but we can just as easily fall into habits that aren’t doing us much good.

I recently realised this had happened to me. When I do my food shopping, I buy a lot of the same things each week – including a couple of packets of biscuits. I absent-mindedly grab them as I walk down the aisle, and into the trolley they go.

Last week, I decided not to buy them. I walked down that aisle, looked at the biscuits, and consciously chose not to pick any up. They didn’t go in the trolley this week, either. And now that I don’t have them in the house, I (fairly obviously!) can’t eat them.

[Interesting side note: they say you learn the depth of your addictions by going cold turkey. When you cut something out completely – whether that’s biscuits, watching TV, or something more serious like cigarettes or alcohol – you quickly realise how addicted you are. I have been surprised at the strength of the sugar cravings I have been having the last couple of weeks – I definitely have a sugar addiction … is there anything you could try this with? Anywhere that you may perhaps be kidding yourself about the level of your ‘addiction’?]

The good news around all this is that new habits can be surprisingly easy to establish. Depending on the difficulty (and which research paper you read!), the consensus seems to be that we can make fairly big changes in 30-60 days. Get disciplined for just a few weeks, and you will see a difference.

Some people find that they can make lots of big changes at the same time, while others have more success with a more gradual approach. You probably already know which camp you fall into – but be honest with yourself! If you have a history of going crazy at the gym every January, but are back on the sofa with a party pack of Doritos by Valentine’s Day, then the slow and steady approach will likely work better for you long term.

As human beings, habits are a huge part of our lives.

Make certain that yours are working for you, not against you.

PS Last year, I wrote a list of things that might help you form better habits. I think it’s one of the most useful lists I’ve ever made.


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