Resolutions and change science

So, the last hangover has been suffered, the nicotine gum has become a staple food, a padlock locks the fridge, the lycra is newly stretched, the jogging shoes have been emptied of cockroaches, hugging will become a national sport and our fellow humans (even the neighbours with the yapping dog) will experience our unconditional goodwill in 2012. All in all we are going to be a better person or perhaps just get that nagging doctor or spouse off of our backs and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. New year resolutions involve promising to be good boys or girls and we get the warm inner glow from an approving smile, real or imagined.

There is a whole science around change. It has also spawned an industry in which people of my ilk are frequently asked to run workshops to help people or organisations to manage change. Clinical psychology and counselling involve change too. And the demand is huge: it is a matter of new year resolution not only in January and July but every month of the year!

New year resolutions or any change for that matter are all about exchanging one habit for another. Sounds simple enough. Just stop picking your nose. Straight away we are confronted with a couple of complications and it is these that can get in the way of our best intentions. Firstly, one has to think of something else to do with that naughty index finger that is socially acceptable, not painful and maybe at least as gratifying as entering the offending nostril.

Gratification is a critical issue in habits and we are often not aware of why we do things. Some habits, like choosing completely the wrong romantic partner over and over again, are actually unpleasant but for some reason we have the habit of making the same mistake that ends in tears - there is a payoff. Straight away the change becomes tricky if we are not really sure why we have the habit of our discontent and are unclear as to why it is gratifying. Sometimes, of course, it is simply that it makes us feel good and that is a real problem. It is easy to see why starting up a new exercise program is so difficult - it is often hard work and painful.

A second thing that gets in the way is that habits are largely automatic - we perform them without conscious thought. The index finger goes up to the nose and the act is performed before we become aware of it. Incidentally, self-recrimination, self-doubt and other negative thoughts are equally habitual. They are like old coats that have become comfortable even though they don't keep out the cold and the rain. So, we have to interfere with the habit in some way and be constantly aware of it. This takes a fair bit of energy.

Our personal motivation for the change is vital. If we are taking on a new habit and ridding ourselves of an old one in order to obtain the approval of someone else of to get them off our back then making the change may well be difficult. Wanting to change a habit because we know it will be better for us is much better.

Some recent research has found that it takes about three months to successfully change a habit, not the 21 days previously thought. But don't give up: want to make the change and remind yourself constantly why you are doing it. Reward yourself for success; be alert to the desire to give up and tell it off severely; bring the automatic into awareness and persist by talking to yourself positively; take small rather than big steps; get support and talk about it; and think about being successful just one day at a time. Above all, be prepared to feel uncomfortable for a while but accept it as necessary for success.



Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.

You can visit Stewart's blog at http://stewarthase

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