New Year, New You!

January 14, 2014    BY Rabiya Tuma

New Year’s resolutions are a time-honored tradition: We vow to eat better, to deepen our yoga practice, to meditate daily, maybe even just to be a kinder person. Yet most of us know from experience that keeping those resolutions is another matter altogether.

Once a task becomes habitual, the action itself is triggered by an individual’s surroundings—much in the way an actor’s monologue might be cued by a co-star’s exit from the stage—rather than by a current goal or thought.

The high rate of failure isn’t surprising, say scientists who study habits and habit formation, given how habits take shape in our brain. The good news is that the very information they’ve learned about how difficult it is to break bad habits may hold the keys to building healthy new ones.

Scientists define habits as repeated behaviors that are performed in consistent circumstances. In fact, once a task becomes habitual, the action itself is triggered by an individual’s surroundings—much in the way an actor’s monologue might be cued by a co-star’s exit from the stage—rather than by a current goal or thought. In other words, when confronted with a familiar situation, we do what we’ve done before—without thinking about it.

Habits can be simple actions, like turning on a light switch as you walk through a doorway, or more complex behaviors such as that nearly unconscious drive home from work—the one where you arrive at your destination only to realize that you paid no attention to how you got there because you were thinking of something else altogether.

Although such automated behavior may seem contrary to the mindfulness we aim to cultivate through yoga and meditation practice, habitual behaviors serve an important purpose. They enable us to accomplish a task without having to think about it. It is that aspect of habits that is so important. Having certain behaviors on autopilot frees us to contemplate more interesting ideas and to react to the things in our environment that are changing and require our attention. And with experts estimating that habits comprise 45 percent or more of our behaviors during the day, that is a lot of extra thinking and reaction time we gain by automating some of our actions.

How the Brain Forms Habits

Scientists know that we learn habits through repetition. When we first start doing something, we do it because we have a goal in mind. For example, we needed light in a room, so we flipped the light switch, or we tested several routes to drive between work and home, and then stuck with the one we thought was best. But over time, those goal-directed actions shift to automatic pilot, and we do them whether or not we have the goal in mind.

Remarkably, scientists can see this shift happen in people’s brains with the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). While someone is learning a new behavior, fMRI shows that there is a lot of activity in the part of the brain that is involved in decision-making and reasoning, an area called the prefrontal cortex. As a person becomes more familiar with the task, having repeated it numerous times in response to the same cue or context, neural activity in the prefrontal cortex drops off and increases in another part of the brain, called the basal ganglia.

“Early in learning you have to attend to what you’re doing. As it becomes automatic, you can attend to another task,” says Dick Passingham, a professor at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, who studies intention and goal-directed behaviors. However, if Passingham asks study participants to focus their attention on their actions, even one that has become habitual, the activity in the prefrontal cortex comes back. Thus the shift from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia reflects the shift from attention-directed behaviors to automated responses.

Thus far, the tasks Passingham and other researchers have asked participants to learn while lying in an fMRI scanner are relatively simple hand movements or verbal tasks, because that is what imaging science and neurobiology have the tools to tackle at this point. “What science does is it starts with the simple and manipulatable situations,” he says. However, Passingham expects the same shifting pattern occurs as we learn more complex behaviors as well.

What Triggers Unwanted Habits

When habits become entrenched in the neurons of the basal ganglia, our current intentions or goals cease to have much impact on them.

The shift from the executive function part of the brain to the more reptilian region of the basal ganglia has direct implications for how likely it is that we will achieve our New Year’s goals, according to Wendy Wood, a cognitive psychologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who studies habit formation. When habits become entrenched in the neurons of the basal ganglia, our current intentions or goals cease to have much impact on them. Rather, the habitual behavior is directly cued by the context, and if we want to change our patterns, we have to inhibit that response. If we’re used to driving home the same way every evening, chances are that even if we think we’ll take a different route, a moment’s lack of attention can find us making that routine turn instead of the one we thought we had planned to make today.

To illustrate the power of context, Wood points to a study she did with college students who were transferring between schools. She had the students track their daily activities in a diary before and after moving to the new university. When Wood’s team analyzed the data, she found their habitual behaviors tended to stay in place only when the context in which they performed them was similar in both locations. “If they exercised in a gym in their apartment at their old university and they had a similar setup in their new apartment, then they kept exercising. But if they didn’t have that setup, then they stopped,” Wood says.

On the flip side, Wood has found that an individual’s intentions don’t usually prevail in the battle against an unwanted habit. In one study, she looked at students’ fast-food purchasing habits. This time she asked the participants to track both their intentions and their behaviors in a diary. Remarkably, even when the students had lost a taste for the foods and planned not to stop on their way home, they still did.

“That is the crux of what makes habits difficult to change: They are not so much a function of your attitudes, preferences, and beliefs, but instead they tend to be cued pretty directly by the environment you are in,” Wood says. “So one approach we have taken to changing habits—and this is an old behavior modification technique—is stimulus control. You limit your exposure to the context and the situations that would tend to trigger the habitual behaviors. And you put yourself in the context that would facilitate other types of behaviors.”

That’s good news for anyone moving to a new house or job, but for the rest of us it’s a little trickier. We may have to learn from a different aspect of habit research.

The Power of Vows

Researchers have found that the strength of an individual’s intention has an impact on whether they will attain their goal. Adding an aspect of spirituality can also help. (See sidebar on next page.) For example, Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, who studies the impact of practicing gratitude, reports that when people make a vow to do something, particularly if they formalize it, they are significantly more likely to succeed than if they just decide they are going to do it. “Swearing a vow to practice gratitude is very effective, especially if it is expressed to someone who can hold us accountable,” he says.

In his new book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, he points out that even a simple vow can help. “What might a vow to practice gratitude look like? It could be  ‘I vow to not take so many things in my life for granted’ or ‘I vow to express gratitude to someone who has been influential in my life whom I’ve never properly thanked.’ If your vow is formalized, post it somewhere conspicuous where you will be frequently reminded of it.”

Countering Resolution Burnout

Researchers have found that mild exercise, rest, and meditation can all be used to restore self-control.

Investigators have found that the constant vigilance or attention to our goals, and the need to repeatedly inhibit ingrained responses to the cues around us, can be exhausting. In fact, Roy Baumeister at Florida State University in Tallahassee, found that self-control gets depleted just like our cells’ energy stores do when we go for a long run or do a vigorous workout. And when self-control is depleted, we’re less likely to follow our intentions and more likely to fall back into our habitual patterns.

Wood’s researchers demonstrated the fragility of self-control when they asked students, on certain days, to use their non-dominant hand to open the door and answer the phone. During those days, the students were able to accomplish what they intended to only if the activities were habitual. They were much less likely to accomplish other goals that weren’t yet ingrained in their routine.

Luckily, just like food can restore the energy supplies in a cell, researchers have found that mild exercise, rest, and meditation can all be used to restore self-control.

In the case of practicing gratitude, Emmons says, “What we find is that the act of keeping a [gratitude] journal itself is so rewarding and low-cost that it tends to perpetuate the behavior of benefit finding, creating a ripple effect that permeates nearly all aspects of a person’s life. Even if people don’t ‘feel’ like beginning the process, once they start they find it nearly impossible to quit because the benefits are immediate, tangible, and transformational.”

Tactics that Work

Changing the context, says Wood, increases the chances of overriding old habits and creating new ones.

With our knowledge of how the brain works we can adopt tactics that have a better of chance of making new habits stick.

  • Change the context. If you want to go to a yoga class on the way home from work, take a different route home. If you’re on your typical route, you’ll have to inhibit your old habit of heading straight home for dinner; you’ll need constant vigilance. Not all habits are so self-reinforcing as keeping a gratitude journal. Changing the context, says Wood, increases the chances of overriding old habits and creating new ones.
  • Try to create a new situation. If your New Year’s goal is to get more exercise, start exercising regularly with a friend. When you see that person, you’ll naturally start to head to the gym, without having to think, “Do I want to go today?”
  • Link two activities together, so that the first one acts as a cue for the second one. This could work particularly well if the first activity is something familiar that you do regularly. For example, after you brush your teeth, head straight for the meditation cushion. After a few weeks of this, the very act of brushing your teeth will prime you for sitting. Doing something different will become an active decision, instead of meditation being the active choice.
  •  Keep your goals realistic. “If going to yoga class twice a week is doable, then great, come twice a week for a month and then if you feel like doing more, good,” says Cyndi Lee, who started OM Yoga Center in New York. Yoga teachers like Lee practice certain strategies to help students show up regularly for yoga. They may hold week-long intensives that help students deepen their practice so that they want to be there. Also, simple scheduling strategies, such as having the same instructor teach a couple of days a week at the same time of day, can help people come to the studio more often.
  • Stay awake. Not everything should become a habit, stresses Lee. “If anything becomes totally habitual then it is asleep again,” she says. “I often say in class, ‘Asana is a great way to cultivate habits, but is that what we are really doing yoga for, or do we want to use it as a path for awakening?’ It is not just about showing up on the mat; it is about how you work with your mind and the experience.”

The very practice of working with resistance, in whatever form it comes to you, is at the heart of yoga. As Lee says, “Working with your resistance is where the potential for transformation lies.”

Rabiya Tuma
Rabiya S. Tuma, PhD, is a biologist. She is a regular contributor to the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and writes frequently on brain research.