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Why Habits Work Better Than Resolutions

How working on habits has helped me far more than making resolutions

This post probably belongs in January, what with everyone buzzing with resolutions for the year. But I think now is really a better time, after all the commotion about the perfect planner and resolutions settling down a little. My mailbox is full of knowledge related to resolutions — why make them, how not to break them and of course, at the other end, why they don’t really matter. All are geared to make me a better professional, a better parent, a better person.

All very inspiring — no doubt about that.

I do believe in planning and having some goals in place, mainly to give me direction so I know where I am heading, and can use my time productively.

Over the years, I’ve found that much of the time, working on habits has helped me far more than working on resolutions.

The thing about habits is, to quote Lucas Remmerswaal

“Good habits once established are just as hard to break as bad habits, and bad habits are easier to abandon today than tomorrow.”

Golden words.

Easier said than done.

Ask any kid subconsciously biting her nails or exploring her nose, sometimes simultaneously!

According to research, while habits can be changed, the brain keeps a memory of the habit — which can come right back with the right triggers. For example, for someone who’s trying to lose weight the sight of a piece of chocolate can trash the good intentions. Sound familiar?

Sigh! It is the same with a deep-rooted habit.

Whether we like it or not, habits are crucial to our health and our success. They are actions we take as part of our daily routine. When these actions are habits, they don’t need thought. The great thing is, they provide a framework for our day — and let’s face it, routines are a mixed blessing. Good habits that contribute to our wellbeing are a real blessing while the habits we want to change — such as snacking when we watch TV — not so much.

What’s the trick then?

The trick is to understand how “bad” habits work, and how they can be broken and replaced by new ones. This enables us develop healthy behaviors.

With habits, repetition is key. Just like waking up, brushing our teeth, and showering, which we do automatically. This allows our brain to focus on other things. We also develop habits when the brain’s reward centers are triggered — this may not be such a good thing as habits like binge eating, substance abuse and other “addictions” can build up. Why, a prime example is social media which can be a total time suck, keeping us from doing the things we plan to. I am sure you’ll agree!

Why do we get stuck on the bad habits?

When we enjoy doing something — even if we ought not to be doing it — it releases dopamine, a chemical in the brain. This makes the habit stronger. Oddly enough, have you noticed that even when you stop feeling happy about a habit, you continue to do it? I know I do. There are times when I know I shouldn’t be doing something, yet I go ahead and do it — simply because it has become a habit.

Why not break that habit?

There is no single strategy to break bad habits. Of course, one way is to become aware of them and tackle them.

Another way is to simply replace the bad habit with a good one. Sort of like overwriting it.

For example, if emotional eating — reaching out for food when sad — is a habit, replacing it with exercise can help. While the new habit won’t eliminate the old behavior, it is certainly possible to strengthen the new habit and push the old as far back as possible. Pretty much like Google does with search results. Okay, poor joke!

So, rather than carve resolutions in stone that will make me squirm even before the first month of the year is out, I’ve decided to create easy habits: small changes. To that end, I’ve set this year’s goals around the following, so that I can cultivate appropriate habits that will help me achieve them:

Staying healthy

I am diabetic. Diabetes is a lifelong condition that enjoys being pampered — so it is all about healthy diet, exercise and working on minimizing medication by monitoring sugar levels on a fortnightly basis. I have signed up with a group for eight week challenges that focus on healthy living, making small changes that will build up into habits with one tip a day. All are easy to follow and incorporate into my daily routine.

De-cluttering

Mind, body and home — which means buying less, spending less time online, giving more. I’ve resolved to give away at least three things each week. It is a long road to my big goal, but I am happy I am making progress.

Contributing more this year to my welfare home

This entails taking up more work I enjoy and increasing my earnings. I am glad to say I am more focused on how I spend my time, which means consciously cutting down on wasting time online. Oh yes, no more landing on Facebook and forgetting why I went there in the first place.

Building my blogs

I manage six blogs of my own and have a loose editorial plan to feed them all and keep them healthy. Last year, I didn’t do such a great job and I know why. I am trying to change those habits.

Getting my book drafts ready for the world

Biggest challenge, probably, but yes, I’ll do it. It has become harder after I lost all my data last year in a PC crash with no hope for recovery. But sometimes starting afresh can be a better way to handle it than trying to retrieve lost stuff.

How am I going to do all of the above?

  • I’ll try and avoid temptations

– a.k.a distractions. I will stop keeping my mailbox open all day. I will shut the window and only check thrice a day. I got such a long lecture from my son about this last week my head is still reeling from it. The temptation to check email is so addictive. And before I know it, the hours have ticked by and that’s all I am doing.

  • Replace behaviors that do not serve my goals

In addition to less time with email, I hope to set myself fixed hours for my activities. What? Am I not already doing this? I am. But … uh, who has control over doorbells and phone calls? Also, I must break bad habits like self-criticism, perfectionism and my old friend, procrastination.

  • Get mentally prepared to make it work

This, perhaps is the biggest step. Being sick for most of this month and not doing so well with my blood tests has firmed my resolve to do better, live better.

  • Buddy up

My biggest cheerleaders are my family and friends and I will be accountable to them. The best part is they will never hesitate to tell it like it is when I am going off track.

  • Set rewards

That’s easy — I get to read a book after every milestone. Win-win.

Do you make New Year resolutions?

Do you keep them?

What habits would you like to break/create?

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 298,432+ people.

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