By M.J. Ryan
“This year, I’m going to stop worrying so much.”
“I will get in shape, once and for all.”
“I’ll stop spending beyond my means.”
“I’ll get along better with my family.”
“I’ll start that business I’ve always dreamed about.”
Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution? Forty-five percent of us do, say experts. But fewer than 10% of us stick to our intention. Why? Because we just don’t know how to change.
To bring new behavior into being takes work. Our brains have enormous “plasticity,” meaning they can create new cells and pathways. But our brains create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over. Here’s why: Brain cells that fire together wire together – in other words, they have a strong tendency to run the same program the next time.
Lasting change takes lots of practice because you’ve got to create a pathway to the new options. This process takes six to nine months, according to many brain scientists. (So much for those seven-day wonder programs!) The process is not about getting rid of bad habits. It’s about building new, more positive ones. Even stopping doing something, like smoking, is really about creating a good new habit, nonsmoking.
So how can you help your brain create new pathways? Put external reminders in place, at least in the beginning. Unless you have a trigger from the outside — a note, an email reminder, a friend who shows up at the door to go to the gym with you -- it’s very likely you’ll keep defaulting to the old behavior because it’s automatic. That’s also why it’s so important to be willing to start over, no matter how often you blow it or get discouraged. You’ve got to give yourself the time to create that new pathway – and the patience to let yourself realize your intention.
That’s what Ann did. She wanted to get fit. She decided her goal was to exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes. With a clear goal in mind, she knew what actions she had to take and could measure her success. Did she do it perfectly? Absolutely not! Some weeks, she hit her target only once or twice. But she didn’t turn her goof-ups into give-ups. She discovered that if she drove straight from the office to the gym three evenings a week and worked out on both Saturday and Sunday, she could realize her goal. With an alarm set on her Blackberry and a friend who met her at the gym on weekends, she was reminded and inspired to create that new pathway – working out regularly. Today she’s fitter than six months ago.
So make your resolution and know that with a positive attitude and external reminders, you can cultivate any new habit or behavior. How’s that for a Happy New Year?
MJ Ryan is the author of THIS YEAR I WILL, How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution or Make a Dream Come True and ADAPTABILITY: How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For and many other books. A member of Professional Thinking Partners, she works with individuals and teams around the world. Visit her website at www.mj-ryan.com.