x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Whatever you wish for this year, try to make it a habit

There are ways to trick yourself into doing the right thing in the new year.

In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change, author Charles Duhigg interviews an army major based in Iraq. As Mr Duhigg notes, the US military (or any military for that matter) is based on habit formation. It teaches soldiers how to think, shoot and communicate under fire.

The army major that the author interviewed told him that understanding habits was the most important thing he had learnt: “You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your night-time patterns and what you automatically do when you get up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a habit.”

At this time of year, when most of us are making new resolutions or tiredly rehashing old ones – lose weight, get fit, exercise more, diet, be more productive, don’t procrastinate, don’t waste time on social media, get a new job, tell off your mean boss – it occurred to me that habit-formation was key to making any goal a success.

I used to think that if you wanted something enough, you would work to achieve it. But that’s not enough. During the long days of dogged effort in pursuit of a marathon or mere weight loss (although that isn’t a small goal), you need strength to persevere.

The word effort comes from the Old French esforz, which means power, strength, force. Habits, it turns out, can offer this kind of strength. The trick is to figure out how to make them your own.

One way is to trick the mind. This is what successful practitioners in Walter Mischel’s famous experiment with marshmallows did. These were four-year-old children, mind you. Those overseeing the experiment left the children alone in a room with a marshmallow and said that if they didn’t eat it, they would get two when he returned.

As has been widely documented, the children who succeeded in staying away from the marshmallows used distraction as a device. They sung to themselves, they curled up on the floor and played imaginary games, they tried everything to distract their minds from that sweet wonder existing a few feet away from them.

The same can apply to adults. When you want to avoid that late night snack that is calling to you from the fridge or cupboard, rather than tell yourself, “not to eat that cookie”, it may work better to distract your mind with other thoughts. Go watch some television or read a book. Go downstairs, away from the kitchen. Occupy the mind. Figure out your mental triggers.

What is it that causes you to reach for that extra doughnut that you don’t really need? What is it that causes you to break open that packet of crisps in the middle of the work day? What is the thought that makes you drink another can of Pepsi when you’ve been telling yourself that you will give up carbonated drinks?

Once you figure out the thoughts and movements that cause you to end up in a place where you don’t want to be, you can work on eliminating those triggers. My folly is my desire for crisps late at night. The house is quiet, I am alone, reading a book or watching television. Suddenly, I get hungry, not for rice or a carrot but for crisps. The way I got out of this habit was to sleep early and stop buying “Bhujia Sev”, which is a spicy Indian snack. Thankfully, the rest of the family finds them too spicy for their taste so I was able to make a unilateral decision.

And then there is increasing your willpower. Sitting up straight, interestingly, helps improve willpower. As does standing without fidgeting. Meditating at the same time everyday does wonders to your willpower. If you think about it, all these seemingly small and trivial activities have to do with controlling the mind.

Sitting up straight involves the effort of not slumping back on the sofa. Do it often enough and you are basically telling your body to “sit up and listen”. No wonder this has a parallel benefit in increasing your willpower.

In 2014, the best resolution you could possibly make could be simply this: whatever you wish for, make it a habit.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir