Thursday, December 23, 2010

How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

For most people New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken. We all sit down at this time of the year and write out a list of bad habits we want to break. They might include: smoking, laziness, disorganization, or profligate spending.

Then, most of us resolve that we are going to marshal our mental resources, buck up our willpower, and go to war against our errant impulses. In our rich fantasy lives, we overcome our bad habits.

In reality, however, as the New Year dawns, we are well on our way toward failure. We break our resolutions more often than we break our bad habits.

This happens even if our therapy has given us serious insights into why we have the habits.

However much therapy has promised that getting to the root cause of our bad habits will make it easier to conquer them,  experience says otherwise.

Since talk therapy is about combining insight and ego mastery, and given that most everyone knows that it does not work, why does anyone still have faith in the ministrations of talk therapists?

But then, what does work?

I have found that we do best by starting with Aristotle‘s dictum: the only way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. I have mentioned the point many times on this blog. One post that directly addresses today’s topic is linked here.

I am returning to Aristotle because his basic idea has made it into Sue Schellenbarger’s column in the Wall Street Journal. Her title: “How to Keep a Resolution: Forget Willpower, Reaching a Goal Means Retraining Your Brain to Form New Habits.” Link here.

I am happy to see that today’s scholars of human behavior are sufficiently humble to allow themselves to return to yesterday’s wisdom. I feel that they should have given Aristotle some credit, but you can’t have everything.

If professionals have learned how to break bad habits, the news is taking its time reaching the larger public. Most people, Schellenbarger reports, continue to believe that weak willpower is the reason they fail to keep their resolutions.

Of course, this faith in willpower dates to Freud, though the great Viennese neurologist did observe, correctly, that when you pit the ego against the id, or willpower against impulse, ego and willpower are going to lose out.

Contemporary behavioral research has not followed Freud down a dead end street. They have simply worked out a more constructive approach.

Schellenbarger offers some useful, concrete suggestions.

Let’s be clear. While it is fruitless to try to control and to suppress your bad habits using willpower, self-discipline still has a place in the process.

When you decide to reorganize your work, you need self-control to follow the steps that you have laid out… most often, as Schellenbarger says, with a coach.

But where therapy wants people to use their willpower to try to control their worst tendencies, they do better to mobilize their discipline in favor of enhancing their best qualities.

This sounds like it would be easy. In most cases it is difficult, because the pull of habit, of the familiar, is very strong indeed. Yet, when the culture sends you on a fool's errand, offering the wrong advice, it is going to make the task nearly impossible.

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