Stop Quitting and Start Doing

Are you a quitter?

Each New Year's Day, millions of hopeful Americans set resolutions to improve their lives – whether it's losing weight or saving money. But statistics show by the middle of February, 80% of folks have quit on themselves.

Which means by now, most of you have already given up on your resolutions.

Why do we make promises to ourselves that very few of us actually follow through with?

The first challenge is "false hope syndrome." Psychologist Peter Herman documented cases of this problem and claimed the issue is setting expectations too high. Our own overconfidence hinders our ability to succeed with "pie in the sky" goals.

Try to set smaller, more measurable goals. For example, simply saying you want to lose weight is too vague. Instead, set a goal to lose a pound a week. Or, instead of just wanting to be healthier, set a goal of cutting your soda intake to just one cup a week. Having more attainable goals helps you feel more successful and less likely to quit.

Experts recommend charting your goals (and successes) in a visual fashion, like making a vision board. Perhaps if your goal is weight loss, using a picture of yourself (or someone else) at an ideal weight can be a big motivator. Tape the picture on your fridge to remind yourself to eliminate mindless snacking.

Also, accountability can really help us stay on track. Share your goal with family and friends... Some folks even find posting it on Facebook or other social media helps them stay on track.

And remember, new habits are difficult to make and take time to become engrained.

Habits occur because of a process in an area of our brains called the orbitofrontal cortex, or OFC. It's a crescent moon-shaped area of the brain that sits just behind our eyes and forehead.

The OFC controls goal-directed behavior. When we're trying to make a new routine out of something, like going to the gym, our OFC lights up with activity to drive us to that goal.

But there's a competing pathway in our OFC. Natural chemicals we make, called endocannabinoids – yes, they are related to marijuana's active ingredient – tend to quiet activity in our brains. Essentially, they stop neurons from firing rapidly. When that happens, our OFC switches to the pathway that allows habitual behavior to take over.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego found that these chemicals make us follow habits instead of making goal-directed decisions. Essentially, our old habits get in the way of us making new routines.

So the challenge is taking goal-directed behavior and turning it into a habit. That way we default to our new, healthier habit.

How do you simply make a new habit? Start with the three-step approach as outlined by Charles Duhigg in his famous book, The Power of Habit.

Step 1: Reminder. This is a cue or trigger for the action. Stress often acts as our biggest cue for bad habits – think about the last time you felt stressed and reached for a candy bar. Recognize your triggers and set about replacing your bad habit with the one you want instead.

You can also set your own reminder. It might help you to pair it with an existing action. For example, if you want to start going for a walk after dinner, pair it with another after-dinner chore like taking out the trash.

Step 2: Routine. Complete the action. Make sure to turn off distractions, including your cellphone, that could divide your attention. You also want to follow through on those small, measurable goals.

Step 3: Reward. Make sure to reward your brain. Since endocannabinoids trigger the pleasure/reward system, if you reward your behavior, you're more likely to repeat it. Once you begin to repeat the same behavior, it will become a habit. One famous study from the European Journal of Social Psychology found it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become a habit. Harder still, more difficult tasks (like exercising every day) took some participants much longer, as many as 254 days.

Remember to start small. Time is one of the biggest hurdles to new habits. We hear from folks saying they don't have the time to do things like work out. But if you start small, it's easier to build longer habits over time. Start with short workouts every day, even just 10 minutes in the morning. After a few months, bump it up to 15 minutes, and so on. I like to go on an early morning walk, before my brain knows what's happening. It's a good way to get the blood moving.

It also helps to get some help. Having a buddy to help keep you accountable goes a long way toward success. Ask a friend to join you at the gym or to keep tabs on your spending levels when you shop together. You can tackle self-care activities with some electronic help. Apps like Insight Timer and Headspace offer free meditation guidance, while a good sound machine and alarms can help you improve your sleep schedule.

Have a goal you've set this year? We hope following the three steps for habit formation will help you live a healthier, wealthier 2019. Let us know how your goal is going – drop us a line at [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 23, 2019