Now the excitement of a new decade is fading, you may find that your drive to stick to your New Year’s resolutions is coming unstuck. When you set out on January 1st with your Dry January, Veganuary or Whatever-else-anuary plan, you’ll have been trying to replace old habits with new. And as Professor Bas Verplanken from the University of Bath who’s an expert on habits and habit change says,
“Every December millions of people make New Year’s Resolutions. By the sixth of January millions of New Year’s Resolutions have gone down the drain. What most people underestimate is the fact that our daily routines continue as usual after January 1st, activated by the same situational cues which maintain the old habit”
The point is that with the same surroundings, friends, family and lifestyle, there are lots of constant triggers for us to revert to old habits. As Professor Verplanken discusses in his book “The Psychology of Habit Change” (really excellent if you’re into applied psychology research, a bit heavy if you aren’t), a good time to change established habits is at times of change in your life, as I’ll come on to…
A habit is activated by a cue (stimulus)
The great thing about habits is that once we’ve made an association between a particular cue (sight of toothbrush by sink in the early morning) and a sequence of actions (brushing our teeth), they require little or no mental space or energy to carry them out. You don’t need to work out whether you need to brush your teeth today, or how much toothpaste to use – it’s all done subconsciously for you, robot-like. Established habits are “stimulus-bound” (reactive to specific cues or reminders) rather than goal-directed (governed by your overall goals or intentions). Being stimulus-bound is partly what keeps them operating automatically.
When I drove my son to catch a train yesterday and ended up in M&S car park instead, that was because I was driving on auto-pilot. I drive to M&S much more often than to the train station. I was chatting as we drove and my brain was reacting to the turns in the road I normally (and all-too frequently) make to go shopping rather than my intention to get to the station. My goal was the railway station but to drive there without the M&S detour I would have needed to keep my goal at the front of my mind to override the well-worn sequence that gets me so reliably to the shop. For a one-off situation like this, you just need to keep your mind focused on your goal. But when you want to change a habit for good, you need to create a new sequence with a new cue or stimulus.
A key to changing a habit is to remove or alter the cues that trigger it
When familiar cues aren’t there, the habit isn’t activated so easily
If you move house or job, and your environment and routines change, there’s a potential window for change. Verplanken suggests that these points of major change may be a good time to establish new habits. This is because when our environment changes, if the cues that triggered the old habit are removed or disrupted, more conscious processes kick in – you need to think about what you’re doing. Just as when I first moved to where I live now I had to consciously think about where I was going, in order to learn the route to the shops.
Verplanken says that behaviour change interventions can be more effective at times of change than interventions delivered under stable conditions. They looked at studies comparing the effect of interventions which were made at change-points in people’s lives (moving house) with the same interventions made when people were not undergoing change (staying living in the same house). Giving information about public transport and a one-day free public transport pass was only effective in increasing public transport use in people who had moved in the previous 3 months – there appears to be a window of opportunity for change of approximately 3 months.
If your environment doesn’t change, how can you kick an unhelpful habit?
The studies Verplanken is talking about here are largely about changing travel habits, so how does this apply to changing your eating habits? Well, his point about under-estimating how hard it is to change a habit when you don’t change other things in your life is really important. All the old triggers are still there, so unless you keep your wits about you, you’ll be doing the old thing before you know it and your New Year’s Resolution will be in tatters. I’ve got some simple tips for sticking to your good intentions:
- Make some changes in your home to get rid of old cues and set up new ones. Put foods that will trigger your old grazing habit out of sight and put things that will remind you of your intentions in your line of sight. If only you use your kitchen, you can put up a sign for yourself, or a photo to remind you of your resolution. If you share with others and don’t want to advertise what you’re doing, choose something more subtle, like moving where you keep the tempting treats. Or do what Professor Brian Wansink suggests and keep the foods you want to eat less of in opaque containers and keep the ones you want to eat more of in plain sight on the counter. By doing these things you are altering the cues and helping your brain to follow your healthy goal rather than responding to the old cues on autopilot.
- Have a clear workable plan for what sequence of actions will make up the new habit you want to acquire. If you’re giving up alcohol, think about what you will actually do at those points when you’d normally crack open the wine. Do you need an alternative drink? Or a different activity altogether like reading an engrossing book, phoning a friend or playing an online game? Remember the importance of the cue – put the new drink, or the book you plan to read in an obvious place so it catches your attention at the time of day you need it. Also, it’s a good idea to be realistic about the alternative here – if your plan is a very active one and the point about drinking alcohol was to relax you, the active plan may not hit the spot.
- Recruit support. If you’ve got a friend whose New Year’s Resolution is wobbling, agree to encourage each other to keep going. You could find a joint activity to keep you on track, or simply text each other at times when you need a boost of encouragement to keep you on track.
- Here’s a short video I made about how habit change is the key to losing weight and keeping it off.
- If you’d like to receive my monthly newsletters straight into your inbox, you can sign up here.
- If your job involves helping people change unhelpful eating habits, either because you work in dietetics, nutrition or food education, or you work in counselling, psychotherapy or psychology, I run workshops on how you can use the psychology of weight loss to help your clients lose weight.
Verplanken, B., Roy, D. and Whitmarsh, L. (2018) Cracks in the Wall: Habit Discontinuities as Vehicles for Behaviour Change. In Verplanken, B. The Psychology of Habit Change. Springer publications