Whether to break a bad habit or to form a good one, one thing remains the same: our brain will fight tooth and nail to kill our motivation, keeping us from staying on track with our New Year’s resolutions.
In Marvel’s Doctor Strange, the namesake hero traps the bad guy Dormammu in a time loop. Dormammu, fed up with reliving the same moment repeatedly, finally accepts defeat.
By Matt Johnson, Phd., and Prince Ghuman
Every time we hit the new year, we can feel just as defeated stuck in our own time loop. Year after year, another round of New Year’s resolutions and behaviors play themselves out. So what’s up with repetitive behaviors?
To celebrate the start of the new year, why do the Spaniards stuff their faces with exactly twelve grapes, the Danish break plates, while the South Americans let the colors of their underwear decide their fortunes? No matter how different traditions are across the world, the answer lies in the one thing we have in common: setting goals, expectations, and resolutions for the year ahead.
Resolutions can turn into simply false promises we make to ourselves each year. We either commit to doing something good like going vegan, exercising daily, and being more grateful or we refrain from indulging in our vices like, binging Stranger Things on Netflix, eating junk food, over-shopping, and more.
“This is the year I’ll lose all this weight because…” is the same story we tell ourselves every single year. Exercising more is Americans’ number one New Year’s resolution, yet we spend $1.8 billion in unused gym memberships every year while most of us who set fitness as a goal eventually give up by February.
Similar to Dormammu, we, too, hope that one of these cursed years would come to an end and a time where we can finally do what we actually intended to do would fall into our laps one day. But then… “Three…two…one… Happy New Year!” and the loop has just come full circle and we’re back to where we started.
Why is it so easy to switch a good workout to Netflix-n-chill instead? Why do we find ourselves promising to read more when we just can’t?
To understand the struggle we face against our habits (or lack of), let’s understand the psychology of habits.
The Psychology of New Year’s Resolutions
As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” As creatures of habit, our obsession comes from one root fact: our brains are lazy and thus, constantly looking for a shortcut to save finite energy.
A habit is an activity we do regularly, almost without forethought like brushing our teeth every morning. Our habitual loop has three fundamental parts: triggers, actions, and rewards. Without suitable triggers and rewards, our efforts in morphing our resolutions into habits simply become actions that we find tedious doing. From this, the curse will likely follow and continue every year and we wind up achieving not so much.
Studies have shown our desire to eat popcorn occurs at movie theaters. In this scenario, the movie theater is the trigger—similar to an on-and-off switch remote—that our brain responds to. A trigger is the surrounding environment wherein the habit takes form. Similar to how the heat in the oven causes the souffle to rise, triggers in specific environments provoke specific behaviors.
When there is a trigger, action follows. Action is what determines our behavior. When we’re cold, we cover up with a jacket. When we’re heartbroken, we drown in a pint of our favorite ice cream. When stressed, many crave a cigarette. Setting up an environment full of triggers enables us to dedicate our willpower elsewhere. When you bring your workout clothes to work, chances are you will drag yourself to the gym. When you leave your book on the side table, you’re more likely to pick up where you last got off before bed.
When we act upon triggers in our environment, we feel a sense of achievement. Feeling of achievement comes from the reward we give ourselves. Whether it’s seeing how your muscles have developed after consistently going to the gym or knowing that you’re 3 books away to having read 20 books this year, rewards push us to power through with our actions until they, ultimately, become habits. This happens through repetition, hence the “loop.”
The more we consistently repeat our actions, the more likely they evolve as habits.
To be in the loop of our own habits (good or bad), it’s important to be aware of the habit loop. If you find yourself feeling relaxed (reward) from drinking a cold beer (action) after a stressful day at work (trigger), that’s the habit loop in action.
Developing a drinking habit, unquestionably, is not good for anybody. But some, if not most, bad habits are formed because of humankind’s strongest craving: to feel a sense of belonging. Let tribal psychology explain.
The “Good” In Our Bad Habits
Relatively speaking, a good habit for you might not be so good for someone else. Generally, we consider a bad habit as one that causes harm to us and sometimes even others. Let’s take the example of how social smoking is born.
You are a shy, reserved person and you decide to go to a party that your friend invited you to even though you don’t know anyone else attending. At the party, your already-a-smoker friend wants to jump outside for a quick smoke. You know if you refuse to go and stay inside, you will be alone and for a relatively shy person, it is the last situation you want to find yourself in. So, what do you do? You hop outside with your smoker friend. Second-hand smoking? No big deal.
Eventually, you start having conversations with others around you, realizing you aren’t such an awkward, shy person after all. Whether it started with friends or is dependent on the presence of alcohol, social smokers understand this very well.
When the ticket into the social circle is smoking (even though it goes against your values), tribal psychology suggests this happens because we, as social creatures, value social acceptance more so than doing the right thing. The next thing you know, you’re lighting up a cigarette and have “social smoker” written on your forehead.
So every time we’re in a social gathering (trigger), we smoke (action) to belong in our social circle (reward). The habit loop in full action.
Similar to how there is “good” in our bad habits, there is the “bad” in our good habits too.
The Subtle Art of Challenging Good Habits
A good habit, in comparison, can greatly benefit our overall health. But too much of a good thing won’t be good for long.
Let’s assume you want to start working out every morning to jumpstart your day. You’ve tried many times before yet your efforts only last so much. Eventually, as you see no progress, you lose interest and end up quitting. But why is it so easy to develop bad habits like social smoking over good ones like exercising? The answer lies in the rewards we set up for ourselves.
A bad habit usually exists because the rewards we find fulfilling are much easier and faster to obtain than a good habit. It’s more convenient to order pizza delivery than go to the gym every day to get over a breakup. With good habits like working out come long-term rewards (delayed gratification) such as a fit and healthy body. With bad habits like eating junk food come short-term rewards (instant gratification) such as feeling satiated after devouring a box of pizza.
To help power through your New Year’s resolutions every year, here’s how you can train your brain without feeling the drain.
Hack Your Brain Into Achieving Your New Year’s Resolutions
Like swimming, meditating, driving, and even riding a bicycle, our habits are the accumulation of the actions we learn through repetition over time. It’s as if they are imprinted into our brains. We don’t have to think about what we have to do anymore. We just do them. With no hesitation.
So how do we learn or curb a bad habit in the most effective, realistic way possible? One word: substitution. Reaching for a beer right after getting home from work? Substitute the beer with flavored sparkling water instead. Trying to cut down on carbs? Substitute your favorite pasta with zucchini noodles. Hoping to get in better shape this year? Substitute your movie, popcorn-stuffing nights to yoga nights with your significant other.
Whether to break a bad habit or to form a good one, one thing remains the same: our brain will fight tooth and nail to kill our motivation, keeping us from staying on track with our New Year’s resolutions. To battle with your impulses and ease into withdrawal, use simple and healthy rewards to keep your habit loop going. And don’t estimate the power of substitution and repetition.
With the upper hand on habits now, you’re way ahead of Dormammu. Make the best out of your year and remember: we’re all partly Doctor Strange in some way. We have the power to put ourselves in a loop that’s for the better, or worse. The choice is up to us. Happy NYE!
Johnson and Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”. You can check out more of their writing here.