The Math of Habit Change

The start of a new year marks a new beginning–it’s a compelling time to make a change for the better. Of course, those changes can be easy to promise but tough to deliver. Now, as mid-January approaches, many of us are finding our resolutions put to the real test!

Interestingly, resolutions often take the form of what you might think of as subtraction—things like cutting out sugar, curbing spending, or reducing screen time.

On the surface, this makes sense. Why not cut out the “bad stuff”? We seem to have an innate knack for demonizing things, and it’s only natural to want to get rid of the things we see as negative.

The problem with subtraction, however, is that it’s hard–particularly when it comes to ingrained behaviours like eating and drinking. Habits are essentially stored in the brain as neural connections, and that makes them easy to repeat, but difficult to eliminate. And habits that give us pleasure of some sort, like eating, shopping or screen-bingeing, are particularly difficult to break; when we don’t do them, our body’s neurochemistry prompts us to fire them back up again.

That doesn’t mean you can’t kick a bad habit. Not at all. But it might be worth considering whether adding might be more effective than subtracting in getting the job done.

For example:

  • If you commit to and focus on eating 8 serving of veggies a day, your belly might be so full of fibre that you aren’t really thinking so much about the chocolate bar.
  • If you commit to and focus on saving $5 a day in a jar, you might start to feel excited about your growing vacation savings instead of struggling with feelings of denial over the caramel macchiato.
  • If you commit to and focus on going for a 30-minute walk each day, that half-hour might just replace some of the time sitting on the couch watching Netflix.

Is this a magic bullet for change? Not at all. But if you find you’re struggling with your resolutions now the new year is really underway, it might be worth asking yourself whether addition might deliver better results than subtraction.

 

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