“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant, summarizing Aristotle
When the New Year dawns, to mix metaphors, it is common to set resolutions for the new year. It is just as common to break most of them by February. We blame our lack of willpower, or attention span, or the demands of life, when this happens. But there’s really a different problem: The coming of the new year does not add to the hours in a day. When something new is added, something old has to give. When some new course is chosen, and old course must give way. When the time comes to make resolutions, though, we give to little thought to how we are going to make room for them in our lives.
When I became a certified Smoking Cessation therapist, a key lesson from the course was that substitution beats willpower. Finding out why a person smokes – physical sensation, boredom or maybe just an excuse to leave the office for a few minutes – gives you a clue as to what routine or substitution can allow the smoker to capture what they were getting out of smoking in a different way.
One of the most common people promise themselves to do at the new year is to lose weight. But why do people gain weight? Comfort food calms when we’re stressed. Fast food lets us eat now when we’re tired. Snacks in front of the television give us something to do with our hands when our bodies are still, and it may remind us of getting out to the movies. These are, of course, just a few of the reasons we don’t eat as well as we should. And as for exercise, that requires time, time that is getting shorter and shorter as we spend more time on our smart phones with Facebook friends we didn’t actually talk to in real life and with work that used to end when we left the office. So eating right and exercising more to lose weight doesn’t just require motivation, it requires changing a lot of things that have crept into ever busier lives without our intending it.
In the past several years, I’ve seen a lot of useful books about habits and habit formation. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, comes to mind. We know you need to replace bad habits with good ones. And we know a little bit about how. But still you must ask yourself, Why do we form bad habits in the first place? Understanding what you get from your bad habits is the first key to changing them. Because otherwise, when you find yourself in those situations where the bad habit gave you comfort, satisfaction, or maybe a feeling of control, you will need to find willpower to resist temptation. By knowing what’s going on, you can redirect it.
So, if you want a new year’s resolution, I would suggest one, and only one: Be conscious of what you’re doing, saying and thinking. Ask yourself if you would like for things to be different. And if you would, instead of beating yourself up, understand that you were trying to take care of yourself and look for a better way to do so.