Wouldn’t it be strange if you learned that yes, you can make brand new habits, and that the brand new habits can stick, and yet . . . that the old habits are still somewhere deep in your brain, and given an old triggering environment, the old habits may return?! That seems like the exact opposite of what you would want to hear on Jan 2, getting ready for the New Year and for new habits.
There’s actually valuable information in this – it’s the information of ‘be careful.’ Be careful not to fall into your old habits and old environments in which those habits fester.
Bob Condor of a Seattle newspaper writes, “What [Ann Graybiel] has found is that the brain never completely deletes old patterns, say, smoking, eating junk foods or, yes, riding a bicycle, from the basal ganglia region deep in the brain’s neural structure. Instead, those habitual patterns “retain memory of context,” such as a cocktail and conversation for an ex-smoker or potato chips in the pantry for the junk-food snacker.”
Ann Graybiel is a Neuroscientist and Professor at MIT. Her latest researach about the basal ganglia brain region appeared in the journal Nature in October, 2005. In short, Connors argues that you can beat yourself at the same old game. By keeping the resolution and the new habits at the forefront of your mind, you can act successfully towards creating new habits and setting aside old ones. Connors suggests several verified techniques: do the new habit consistently, write your goals down, and do not put yourself into environments in which old habits are easily triggered (“Just the sight of a piece of chocolate can reset all of those good intentions,” says Graybiel).
This echoes the thoughts of philosophers from Aristotle to William James. Aristotle says, “We are what we repeatedly do.” James Pawelski, a William James scholar and director of the Positive Psychology Master’s program at UPenn, says in a forthcoming paper in Contemporary Pragmatism, “the building of character is essentially a matter of habit formation,” summarizing various of William James’ writings.
William James has a firm four-step process to “make our nervous system our ally” in the creation of new habits, writes Pawelski.
1) Start strong (launch the new habit off decisively)
2) No exceptions (never make an exception to the new habit)
3) Act when promted (act “on every emotional prompting,” i.e. whenever you want to act on the new habit, be sure to do so)
4) Do it every day (exercise the new habit every day)
In other words, William James said years ago what nutritionists, trainers, coaches, and doctors are saying these days about habits – do them immediately, consistently, actively, and daily.
In all of this habit literature, what is most interesting to me is the research by Ann Graybiel on the basal ganglia. First of all, it is remarkable that Graybiel has in the course of her career isolated the area of the brain where habits are formed. Secondly, I had no idea that there may be physical reasons why certain habits are stored deep in the brain even years after a person may have stopped acting out those habits. In fact, ask anyone who used to smoke twenty years ago if they would like a drag today: nine out of ten ex-smokers will tell you that they’d love a smoke, even though they may now hate the smell of it when others smoke… but that feeling…. It’s incredible that a habit can remain in the brain. Using weight-loss as another example of a desired habit, much of recent research shows exactly what Graybiel is investigating on the physiological level: that there may be other processes that make it difficult to lose weight (some recent research here and here).
Connors suggests, in exercising the new habit of, for example, healthier eating, to think both of the short-term results (“I feel more clearheaded when I eat less sugary foods”) and of what psychologist Alan Strathman refers to as consideration of future consequences, i.e. long-term results, (“I will be thinner”). As a more illustrative than prescriptive example, Connors writes that one LifeSaver fewer per day can result in a one-pound decrease in weight over a year.
In summary, focusing on why your new habit is great for you is partly what will make that habit stick. And giving up the bad habit and its surrounding environment cold-turkey will strongly help. Finally, thinking about short-term and long-term benefits makes the new habit much more attainable. On the one hand, Graybiel’s research is sobering. On the other hand, these are encouraging and actionable thoughts for the new year.