Habits – Breaking the Bad and Maintaining the New

Have your New Year’s resolutions already fallen by the wayside? You haven’t been to the gym since mid-January of last year and you’ve been indulging in a few sweet and salty treats only days into the New Year? Well it turns out breaking old habits and maintaining new habits is actually quite difficult and it takes a lot of repetition for it to stick – even more repetition than previously thought.

Habits have an evolutionary basis and having habits can be both positive and negative. Let’s first take a look into why habits can be a good thing.

Our brains are constantly looking for ways to conserve energy which is why we form habits. According to the Fast Company article, “How to Trick Your Brain to Hold on to Positive Habit Changes,” Jane Porter writes, “Nearly half of our everyday behaviors tend to be repeated in the same location almost every day, according to research out of Duke University. That means most of the time we are running on autopilot. This is a good thing.” According to researchers David Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey Quinn, “Without habits, people would be doomed to plan, consciously guide, and monitor every action, from making that first cup of coffee in the morning to sequencing the finger movements in a Chopin piano concerto.”

Habits create shortcuts for us, conserving energy for other situations in our lives that require greater brain power. While this may have some positive effects, there are also some negative responses we have to our brains’ attempt at conserving energy.  One of the negative responses to our energy conserving brains is that we evolved to have a negativity bias.  Why?  This was necessary thousands of years ago when a person’s life span was shorter and the looming threat of death was around every corner. Whether it be a predator, an enemy, illness, or natural disaster, in order to survive, people had to be hyper sensitive to threats. It’s a survival response that our brains developed to more easily and with less energy see the negative.

While this was a useful and necessary adaptation thousands of years ago, our threats are much less deadly now. Threats today are more likely to be psychological, rather than physical in nature, for example; feeling disrespected, ignored, walked on, treated unfairly, or taken advantage of are all feelings that can alert our survival responses and our amygdala, the emotional, less rational portion of the brain. Due to our extremely reactive and sometimes proactive amygdala, we can see threats where none really exist, causing us to catastrophize. Maybe at a party you overhear your name being said amidst a group of chatty individuals. Even though you didn’t hear the context of the conversation, you just know they were trash-talking you. Or maybe your boss tells you he has some items he needs to discuss with you later this week. You spend the entire week being a nervous wreck; petrified that you did something wrong or that you might lose your job. When you go into her office, she tells you that the work you did on your latest project was excellent and the company would like to offer you a promotion.

While this negativity bias is certainly a hindrance, it’s something that can be controlled. We may be wired with a negativity bias, but we are also wired to survive which means that we are able to adapt, and it turns out that the brain is much more flexible than previously thought. We can change the wiring of our brain structure and create new patterns of thinking, allowing us to forms new habits and break the old.

Although we can counter the negativity bias through developing new habits, it’s important to remember; establishing new, positive habits isn’t easy. Yes, through resiliency and mindset training it most certainly can be done (and thank goodness) but it can be time consuming and it takes a great deal of effort, repetition and practice to see lasting change. According to psychologist Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits , the belief that it takes 21 days to form a new habit if you stick to it every day is false. Research referenced by Dean tells us that forming a habit will typically take 66 days, and more intensive habits like working out every morning will take about 84 days to form – but these numbers also can vary greatly depending on the person.

TRACOM’s Organizational Research Consultant Dr. Natalie Wolfson says, “I would recommend that those looking to form new behavioral habits limit their focus. Our brains are designed such that we can only attend to one thing at a time. This means that if we try to work toward too many goals, we won’t be effective at achieving any of them. Pick one habit that you’d like to develop and concentrate on that. You will likely find that a small behavioral change will affect your development in other areas as well.”

Read the Fast Company article, “How to Trick Your Brain to Hold on to Positive Habit Changes” here.

Click here to see the nine core elements of the Resilient Mindset Model™

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