The Power of Routine
New Year's resolutions are somewhat of a joke. It's estimated that over three quarters of participants fail and lose their resolve by February, which is part of the reason why I never make them. I'm a firm believer that it takes conviction to make or break a good habit, not imaginary numbers or pages on a calendar. However, if one does want to see changes around the start of the new year, I am a proponent of putting the principles into practice earlier on in the Fall (around the Autumnal equinox) so that the groundwork is laid, and the changes can start to manifest in the new year.
Many people are familiar with the 21 day principle – first introduced by Dr. Maxwell Maltz in 1960 –which claims it takes that amount of time to make or break a habit. As this principle has become widely-known, it was also become more disputed. Recent research claims it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. However, there is something to be said for habitual practice of any period of time.
Even a streak of solely two consecutive days practicing a routine or devoid of a bad habit can give the individual a sense of accomplishment and pride in their abilities and willpower. As you continue to exercise your self-control "muscle", it becomes stronger and more character is built.
“The general machinery by which we build both [good and bad] habits are the same, whether it’s a habit for overeating or a habit for getting to work without really thinking about the details,” says Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn that when formulating a new, positive routine, dopamine – the happiness-reward hormone – is released, and acts to strengthen the habit in much the same way it does after engaging in a negative, pleasure-based habit.
I consider myself to be a man of substance, and not in the way that I wish I meant. I have long found my brain to be beholden to external, ingestible stimuli. Whether it be caffeine, nicotine, sugar or alcohol, my mind was always searching for the next substance to latch onto, the next "fix". This may be a common trait in others as well, as the human brain is hardwired to choose stimulation over boredom, or novelty over routine in this particular case.
In the past, I needed something sweet in the morning with my coffee, and some semblance of dessert before bed. Dessert after meals was always a cigarette, and of course, a beer was needed to accompany dinner. In a sense, it was me rationalizing my poor lifestyle choices. On a physiological level, the external stimuli created feelings of excitement, and established a distraction-addiction loop.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) , pleasure-based habits in particular are difficult to break because the given behavior primes your brain to release dopamine. The more times the habit is repeated, the stronger the bond between the stimulus and the impulse to act on it becomes.
When you remove yourself from the pleasure-rewarding substance or behavior, the absence of dopamine in the brain's pleasure-reward centers is what creates the craving to reengage with the stimulus. In these instances, the best tools I've found to combat cravings are meditation or reflection and a change in routine.
Meditation and journaling at the end of the day help the individual look internally, and discover what they are thinking when they are engaged in the habit. Regular practice can allow the practitioner to see what's causing the behavior. In my case, I was able to see that my tendencies towards substances were a form of procrastination; whatever the substance in a given circumstance was a way of distracting my mind from the task at hand.
Mindfulness practice calms the mind and reduces stress response (the fight-or-flight phenomenon) in the sympathetic nervous system. Essentially, meditation quiets the emotional side of the brain in favor of the rational one. And when thinking rationally, you are less likely to compulsively engage in a bad habit. One 2012 study suggests meditation practice after a period of exerting self-control can counteract the diminished willpower effect that often arises on subsequent self-control performance.
You have most likely heard of the power of writing goals and intentions down on paper, as motivational experts, life coaches and therapists commonly suggest for clients. The practice is beneficial for turning habits and routines into auto-generated responses. You are putting intent behind your goals, thus conjuring in the prefrontal cortex of your brain the action to be carried out.
Habit loops occur when things processed in prefrontal cortex for efficiency's sake are transferred to the basal ganglia to ensure they are auto-generated responses, which don't require additional energy to activate the prefrontal cortex. Basic functioning of the basal ganglia requires dopamine neurons to be released.
For example, imagine an individual tells himself at the end of the workday that, “when I am coming home from work, I will go to the gym". This leads to an association between a particular stimulus, and an action that needs to be performed in the presence of that stimulus. When the given situation occurs, the planned response is then automatically carried out. Studies have shown that automatic behavior does not require self-control strength, meaning that it should not suffer from a temporary depletion of self-control in the way behaviors carried out by the prefrontal cortex do.
The other excellent method for making actions become automatic is, well, through taking action. And repetition of those actions.
Many of my habits, both for better or worse, changed abruptly when I first left the US. My sleep schedule, diet and definitely Internet usage were the three most noticeable differences.
Particularly in Mexico, I was often without wifi, due to several service outages and frequent moving. When I did manage to have a connection, 10mb was about the fastest speed possible. Frequent inconsistency in Internet service allowed me to get over my tendency to rely on my laptop.
Upon leaving the house, most times I wouldn't bring my phone with me, for various reasons. Not wanting to have it stolen, for one thing, but also for the sake of general awareness. As I was in a foreign country – especially one with a connotation in the mainstream media of being unsafe – I wanted to be fully immersed in my surroundings. I have enough thoughts on the topic of being present in the moment for an entirely separate post, but several of the benefits of leaving your phone at home were picking up on cultural cues, learning the language better (practicing by listening to conversations) and maybe most importantly, better awareness of surroundings and your level of safety.
The more I engaged with the world around me, the less my mind was occupied with impulses towards my bad habits. As time passed, and I became further removed from my tendencies and addictions, my reliance on those vices melted away. Sometimes out of necessity or scarcity, other times out of sheer determination, each time I successfully passed a given impulse through by mind without acting on it, my tendency towards those behaviors and habits weakened. Additionally, as my resolve strengthen in any particular sense, my discipline towards other unrelated poor habits improved as well.
Sticking to a regimen has been repeatedly scientifically proven to strengthen self-control in unrelated self-control domains. For example, a 2006 study found that regular physical exercise over a 2-months period fostered decreased smoking frequency and alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending and an improvement in study habits.
Once the routine is extended beyond just consecutive days and improvement becomes apparent, the awareness of the benefits creates a sense of accomplishment, and as a byproduct, increased sense of wellbeing. I know that with each additional day that I practiced mindfulness or I was able to turn down alcohol or sweets, I could better see the positive effects my change in habits had on my life, and how they were improving my psyche. Which only strengthened my resolve even more.