PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Year of the New Year’s Habit, Not Resolution

Posted on Dec 19, 2012

Studies show that approximately 80 percent of our New Year’s resolutions are destined to fail.  Basically, we take all of our bad behavior that has accumulated throughout the preceding year, compile a long list, and then systematically make resolutions meant to counteract each of these items. Unfortunately, since we’re not computers, eliminating bad habits is not like deleting junk mail from your inbox.  Many of us set lofty or abstract goals, such as “I’m going to lose weight” or “I’m going to manage my stress better” without having any realistic plan towards achieving those goals.

BJ Fogg, a researcher who runs Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, recommends that instead of goals, try to set “tiny habits.”  He gives the example of flossing your teeth.  If that has been a challenge, instead of trying to floss your teeth every day, try flossing just one tooth.  Fortunately, this new habit is already attached to the ingrained habit of brushing your teeth, so eventually it should stick.  At that point you can add on more teeth until you are regularly flossing all of your teeth daily.

One of the reasons resolutions are difficult to stick to is because the brain area for willpower, known as the prefrontal cortex (pfc), is already overwhelmed with our daily tasks of organization, focus, problem-solving, and multiple other higher-level functions. When you tack on additional resolutions to an overworked pfc, it can’t handle it. Think of what happens when you come home after a long, tiring day at work, where your pfc has been under constant stimulation.  How easy is it to resist repeated visits to the pantry or the fridge for multiple handfuls and bites of unhealthy foods? A tired pfc just can’t fulfill the additional task of meeting your resolutions.

Here are some good examples of how you can take a “tiny habit” and attach it to an ingrained habit so you can gradually transform it into a lasting behavior change:

1) Instead of resolving to “eat healthier,” try to pick specific foods, snacks or times of day where you can make a focused change. If you already snack on chips after lunch, can you replace them with nuts? If you binge eat after work, maybe you can pack a filling, healthy snack to eat 1-2 hours before you arrive home to curb your hunger. If you always eat rice and a small serving of vegetables with dinner, can you cut back on the rice and double up on the vegetables? Try to get one or two of these habits ingrained before you start piling on more.

2) Instead of resolving to “exercise more,” how about setting a specific target? Get a pedometer (if you have an iPhone, it has one already) and measure how many steps you currently walk and then try to add on 500-1000 steps each week until you get to your goal (e.g. 8,000-10,000). What about parking further away or walking stairs twice a day at work to help increase the number steps you walk?

3) Instead of resolving to “manage stress,” how about leaving for work 10 minutes earlier than usual, put on some relaxing music in your car and do some deep breathing. Once this becomes a habit, do the same when you arrive home.

You get the idea. The nice thing about small habits is that they can have other good side effects. A quick deep breathing session or short walk right after you get home may reduce those after work stress hormones, relax your prefrontal cortex, and curb those post-work binge eating sessions. Walking more steps daily can improve energy and alertness and may give you more motivation to add in a couple of workout sessions each week.

My advice is to start small, stay focused and work your way toward healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

Ronesh (Ron) Sinha, M.D.

This blog post is contributed by Ronesh (Ron) Sinha, M.D., Palo Alto Medical Foundation Internal Medicine. Dr. Sinha works closely with the South Asian community to help reduce heart disease and diabetes risk, and provides corporate health lectures to promote wellness in the workplace. Dr. Sinha holds clinical faculty positions at UCLA; Stanford University School of Medicine; and the UCSF School of Medicine. He teaches Stanford and UCSF medical students.