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Making a fresh start the neuroscientific way

By now you may have resolved to commit to some New Year resolutions and, possibly by now perhaps, you are already losing momentum? You are not alone. The idea of turning a new leaf, starting a new chapter, out with the old, in with the new, can bring motivation, say psychologists – it’s called the ‘fresh start effect’.


At this time of year, we’re more prone to assess our lives, as we try putting our perceived failures behind us to start over. Even though people are often bemoaning the lack of goodness in the world, most of us do actually want to be better people, most of us long for a fresh start. But guess what? Research shows that this alluring effect is short-lived because a staggering 80% give up on their resolutions by February!


Why does this happen? Why can’t we consistently live in the way we seemingly want to live it? The core reason for this is simply that a resolution is usually focusing on changing a habit and, to change a habit, we importantly need to understand the mechanics of habits, and why we have them in the first place.

Fundamentally, we develop habits to efficiently fulfil our core needs. Some habits are unconsciously learned by others around us, some are accidentally acquired, and some are consciously developed. ‘Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny’ – Lao Tzu


So, the habit of putting on your seatbelt, for example, without having to think, means we waste no time deliberating. We just do it without thinking because as the old adage goes, “we are creatures of habit”. Habits are built through learning and repetition, and the more we repeat, the more easily we do it. Even if a particular habit causes us distress or problems, it can be difficult to change.


Research shows that over 40% of our behaviours are habits. We rarely actually make decisions. The only way to make a decision stick is to create a new habit.


A ‘habit loop’ coined by Charles Duhigg is a way of describing several related elements that produce habits. These elements have been called the trigger, the behaviour, and the reward. Triggers are usually a feeling that arises from not having our core needs met. Our core human needs, according to psychological research by Anthony Robbins, have been identified as:


1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure 2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli 3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed 4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something 5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding 6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others

When these needs are met, we are living a fulfilled life. All dysfunctional behaviours, according to research, arise from the inability to consistently meet these core needs. Understanding our own needs can not only help us avoid toxic behaviours and habits but can also help us achieve our goals. When these needs are unmet, we might feel one or more of the following triggers – stress, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, numbness, agitation, anger, or boredom.


We might respond to the trigger by a behaviour, for example, unhealthily eating or drinking too much. This behaviour, then, produces a reward which gives us a temporary escape from the feeling of, say, stress.


When we get the feeling of being rewarded, we have a release of dopamine. The dopamine gives us a hit of pleasure. And as we do something over and over, with the presence of dopamine, the habit is strengthened even more.


So, how can we make a fresh start, not fall prey to old habits and break the seemingly robust ‘habit loop’?


The habit expert Duhigg, backed by neuroscience, suggests the following 6 steps:

1. Identify the trigger. Every habit is based on a simple loop: trigger, behaviour, and reward. Whenever you feel an urge for a habit, that urge is the trigger.


2. Determine the behaviour; the behaviour could be the chocolate at 11am, the smoke after each meal, the overdrinking alcohol or checking social media as soon as you awake.


3. Identify the reward. The reward is the meeting of the unmet need. So, the trigger might have been stress of not feeling certainty around how things might develop with COVID 19. Maybe the reward you get from your habit of say, eating, is a feeling of control, a feeling of certainty.


4. Work hard to identify the reward, because to change a habit, the reward has to stay the same. You won’t deny yourself the reward – you’ll only change the way you get it.


5. Change the behaviour. Now that you know your trigger and your reward, all you have to do is create a new behaviour that will give you the same reward!


6. The easiest way to implement a new habit is to write a plan in this way: When (trigger), I will (behaviour) because it provides me with (reward). For example: “When I feel stressed (trigger), I will breathe deeply (behaviour) because it provides me with relaxation (reward).” If you practice the new behaviour enough times, this will become a new habit. And then, once you’ve got that, you can use the same process with another habit you would like to adjust.

Final words – Research shows that a sense of failure and raising expectations too high trip us up when trying to create new habits.


Remember, it can take from some weeks to some months to create a new habit. So, be patient and don’t give up. If you fall by the wayside, just start again. Remind yourself it’s ok to get it wrong. And make your changes small to begin with. Baby steps will surely get you to living the life of your dreams.


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