What is a habit? A habit is “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance“ (Merriam-Webster). With this being the second month of 2022, New Year’s Resolutions are still in many people’s minds. February is statistically the time when individuals give up on their life-changing aspirations that the new-year inspired, “virtually every study tells us that around 80% of New Year’s resolutions will get abandoned around this month” (This Is The Month When New Year’s Resolutions Fail—Here’s How To Save Them). The “new year, new me” mindset is beginning to seem a little too hard to accomplish. If we can create habits that contribute to our new year’s resolutions, maybe they won’t seem so difficult. So, how can we make these resolutions into good habits and break existing bad ones?
Habits are created through associative learning. Essentially, as you repeat a certain behavior in the same context, it becomes an automatic response rather than a thought-out action and that is when it is a habit. When this switch happens, that behavior/action moves from the intentional mind to the habitual mind. So, if we can intentionally make certain changes as a part of a resolution, we will eventually do them without thinking and maybe accomplish a resolution!
Now, let’s look at some interesting science involved in the study of habits! Specifically, the dorsolateral striatum. This is a part of the brain that “experiences a short burst of activity” as the brain begins to create a new habit (Revving habits up and down, new insight into how the brain forms habits). As a habit becomes stronger and harder to break, this burst also intensifies. This was proved in an MIT study where rats were taught how to run in a maze and received a sugar pellet reward at the end. As we have learned in biology, neurons are nerve cells that send and receive signals. In fact, we know all about how these signals are transmitted! In this study, using optogenetics, scientists controlled the neurons in the dorsolateral striatum with light. “A flashing blue light excites the brain cells while a flashing yellow light inhibits the cells and shuts them down” (Science Daily). As the rats were running through the maze, if the neurons were excited, they ran faster and habitually, whereas when the flashing yellow light inhibited the cells, the rats slowed down and no longer knew where to go, making wrong turn after wrong turn. Senior author of the study Kyle S. Smith said, “Our findings illustrate how habits can be controlled in a tiny time window when they are first set in motion. The strength of the brain activity in this window determines whether the full behavior becomes a habit or not”. This shows us, it is fairly easy to form habits if you continue it repeatedly as the action first begins! While this can be good or bad, with the other information you will learn in this blog post, I hope that this is encouraging!
In a recent study rewards were also shown to help form habits. This study explored how giving individuals in India a reward for washing their hands before dinner created good hand washing habits. “The study involved 2,943 households in 105 villages in the state of West Bengal between August 2015 and March 2017. All participants had access to soap and water. Nearly 80 percent said they knew soap killed germs, but initially only 14 percent reported using soap before eating” (Small bribes may help people build healthy handwashing habits). These households were divided into groups. Those that received a reward for washing their hands before dinner did 62% of the time, whereas those who did not receive a reward only washed their hands 36% of the time. This is a big difference! “Significantly, good habits lingered even after researchers stopped giving out rewards” (Small bribes may help people build healthy handwashing habits). Rewards helped create the habit, but once the habit was formed, it was automatic and even without the reward, the habit still took place! Now you may be wondering, why is this information relevant? Well, reward yourself! If your goal is to do one pull-up everyday, give yourself a piece of chocolate every time you do it and eventually you will not need any chocolate!
So, based on this information, how can we break bad habits? First off, go to a new environment. Due to the fact that habits form from repeated behaviors in the same context, by changing our surroundings, it is much easier to not participate in that behavior. Secondly, repeat a new, replacement behavior over and over. For example, if your goal is to eat less pears, make it a habit to reach for an apple every time you walk into the kitchen. As we know, repetition forms habits! Lastly, keep this new environment and action consistent – don’t start reaching for a banana every time you get home if you have been reaching for an apple when you walk into the kitchen. In order to form a habit it is critical to repeat a certain behavior in the same context.
Now, we can now create good habits and break the old bad ones! With this information, make this the year that you actually follow through on your new year’s resolutions! Don’t let this month stop you. You have the knowledge and resources, get to it! New year, new you! Good luck! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below!