Make New Year’s Diets Stick–How do you stick to a new habit or new year’s resolution for more than 21 days? The secret lies in your brain.

New fitness goals, new nutrition goals, or simply a new year’s resolution that you’ve made and desire to keep? Don’t let it drop off after a week—psychologist and life coach Beata Justkowiak goes into the brain of mindfulness expert Pierre Gagnon to extract the simple secret of making a new habit stick.

Beata: January is here, and lots of people want to establish new goals for the new year. Why does January see an increase in gym attendance, but it goes down in February?

Pierre: It’s all about habits. We tend to believe that we make conscious decisions in life but in reality what we do is a mass of habits. We’ve all at some point decided to do something and had to put a lot of thinking into it, and eventually, it became an automatism. We neglect and misunderstand these habits that compose our lives. The brain naturally creates habits for survival reasons.

If we’d to think about everything we do, it’d consume an immense amount of energy and the size of our brain would significantly increase. Energy-wise, the brain consumes up to 20% of all our energy intake in one day. Now imagine if everything you do out of pure habit would become a conscious thinking process, this intake could go up to 30% maybe even more. It would also increase the size of the brain, which would create problems for childbirth.

Why does the brain create bad habits? It seems to go against our own survival chances?

The brain can’t make the difference between a good and a bad habit. Once you’ve automated a process—it can be exercising every day, or stopping at a fast food restaurant every second day—it’s transferred to an old part of your brain, from an evolutionary point of view. This part is called the basal ganglia.  We could generalise by saying that the basal ganglia are the sum of all our habits. This part’s also responsible for automatism, for which our survival depends. So you can imagine how stable it is.

In the basal ganglia, new things can be written but we can’t erase old stuff.  Erasing could simply be life-threatening. So once a habit of being coded in the basal ganglia—whether a good one or a bad one—it’s there to stay. The good news is that we can write new habits in that deep structural part of the brain.

Make New Year's Diets Stick

 

Why is it so difficult to create new good habits?

I think it’s because we don’t know the structure of our habits. Charles Duhigg wrote this wonderful book titled “The Power of Habits”—I highly recommend reading it.

Good habits can be created. Duhigg describes how first we must understand our habit and how is it structured. A habit is made of four elements: a cue (the trigger of the habit), the routine (the habit itself), the reward (the goal that we unconsciously want to achieve), and the craving (what powers the habit).

Let’s say that we want to create the habit of exercising. Now, we come home and sit in front of the TV. We could over a week analyze what triggers this old bad habit. These triggers will fit in one of these 5 categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. We identify the routine, the reward, and the craving. Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we are often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviours.

How can we become more mindful of our cravings?

We live for feelings. We want pleasant feelings and don’t want unpleasant ones. Once you have created a positive craving for exercise, it will power your new habit. It could be the release of endorphins or the absence of guilt when you indulge a little too much in food because you know that you exercise and can burn it.

We need to associate a positive craving that‘ll power the new good habit.  This is how a conscious action will become an effortless habit. So find cravings that will power new good habits and you will see that the gym becomes a new routine for you. Craving the idea of meeting people with whom we workout, chat, and laugh with as we are working out can be very powerful to automate the new routine.

 

Beata spoke with Pierre Gagnon, a repentant economist who now teaches mindfulness meditation at Thanyapura. Pierre gets his rush from boot camps and tennis enjoys smiling at people and loves seeing people’s lives transformed by mindfulness practice.