Creating New Habits

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution … and by January 15 you realize the changes are not happening?! You were determined to go for daily walks rain or shine … but then on rainy days you stayed home on the cozy couch watching TV anyway? Or you wanted to change your diet and avoid sugar, but the remaining Christmas chocolates were just too tempting …?

We are creatures of habit

We automatically perform many of our daily tasks from brushing teeth and getting our clothes on in the morning to setting the alarm before we go to sleep. We often don’t make conscious choices when we drive our car or wash our hands (Have you ever tried moving your hands the other way round when you wash them?) Without habits our lives would be very challenging, and we would be exhausted by the time we have breakfast!

Habits may be detrimental to good health, happiness and success

We easily fall into habitual patterns that don’t serve us! Whereas having a glass of wine with friends at a special dinner can be enjoyable and life-enhancing, drinking wine daily may lead us on a path to poor health and unhappiness. Checking your emails and your social media accounts 20 times during work hours may be a bad habit that get us distracted from our work tasks and leaves us with a feeling of dissatisfaction by the end of the day… New Year’s is a good time to re-evaluate, to find out what works for us and what doesn’t, and to come up with ideas how to improve the quality of our lives.

How do we develop habits?

Neuroscientists have found out that we have billions of neurons in our brain, interconnected with one another to form a complex set of neural pathways. Electrical currents travel down these pathways delivering the messages that create every thought and action. The more we perform a particular activity, the more connections are established between corresponding neurons. For instance, if you start playing an instrument, your capability is limited at first and then expands as more connections between neurons are built. You go faster and you can play more complex pieces over time, because the new network of neural pathways has become more solid.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

This saying doesn’t reflect the truth. Scientist now know that the brain remains flexible and malleable throughout our entire life. It may be easier to pick up another language when you are young. However, it has been researched that we have the power to create new habits whether we are 18 or 88 years old.

How can we create new habits?

Creating new habits often fails because we rely solely on willpower. Falling back to old habits is just so much easier. There are more neural pathways already established! Most people are drawn to things that are easy, convenient and habitual – even though it often doesn’t make us feel good.

Make bad habits more inconvenient

Take the batteries out of the remote control, so you would have to be more active to turn the TV on. Give the left-over Christmas chocolate to the food bank and turn your phone off or put it away during part of the day, and only check your messages and notifications two or three times a day. The more effort it takes to continue your bad habits, the easier it is to change them.

Reduce resistance to establish new habits

If you want to create new habits like going for daily walks or going to the gym in the morning, make it convenient for you. Have your gear ready! Put it on right away when you get home from work or right away after waking up. Set some rules for yourself. Don’t give yourself a lot of choices. Just be clear what your work-out or your new diet looks like. Over time, neural pathways are established and it will become easier. Repeated practice helps the actions become ingrained in your brain’s neural chemistry.

Creating a pause for choice

Practice the art of pausing before an activity. This is a principle we work with in the Alexander Technique. Before you reach for the chocolate or turn on the TV, pause for a moment. Be aware of your body, the space around you, the light in the room or the noises nearby. Just stopping and turning inwards connects you to an awareness that is always there. Then your desire to eat the chocolate or turn on the TV might change. You are in touch not just with the momentary desire, but with your whole self. Awareness helps to let go of old habits, establish new ones and build new neural pathways that help us be happy and healthy!