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Javier Bernácer, researcher of group 'Mente-cerebro'. Institute for Culture and Society (University of Navarra)

Four tips for successful change resolutions


Thu, 18 Feb 2016 12:43:00 +0000 Published in El Correo, Diario Vasco, El Diario Montañés, El Norte de Castilla, La Verdad, Ideal, Las Provincias, Diario Sur, El Comercio, Hoy and La Rioja.

No matter how hard you try to avoid being swept away by the tide of the vulgar, you will end up falling into one of the traditions of the first months of the year: the resolutions of change. Going to the gym, learning English, going for a run, quitting smoking, widening the circle of friends or being kinder to those closest to us are the most common. Rarely do we propose a simple event, such as taking a specific trip or going to attend to a certain play; we almost always propose a change of habits, either acquiring one that will make us better, or giving up some other that is apparently harming us.

The power of habits is overwhelming: they are not simple actions, but transform the subject person we are. But, by the same token, acquiring and changing them is a hard, tedious process that makes us give up before the first month of the year is over. Can we do anything to change it? Here are four tips to increase our chances of success.

Even if you don't notice the effects on your health immediately, your brain has already begun to change. Our experiments show that when a sedentary person switches to regular physical exercise, even if it is gentle, your brain starts to change before you notice the effects on the rest of your body. From the moment he starts doing his purpose, his brain is already getting used to it. Most good habits take hold gradually; the immediate effects are not consciously evident to you, but they do exist.

Set yourself easy goals and allow yourself a treat when you achieve them. We set ambitious goals that we try to achieve immediately. As a multitude of experiments have shown, an immediate reward, no matter how small, is often more valuable than a big award in a few months. Small but immediate rewards will help you stay in the fight to acquire the good habit.

If you want to eliminate a bad habit, try to replace it with a better one. But how can we distinguish a good habit from a bad one? Neuroscience is not very clear about this distinction because, as the expert Ann Graybiel says, this science has had to separate itself from the popular view of habit, and stop being interested in some of its characteristics in order to take it to animal experimentation. To understand human habit a little more, we can turn to Aristotle: according to him, a habit is good if it involves learning, and bad if it is a rigid routine. Habit is an acquired disposition that brings us closer to or moves us away from that which corresponds to us as human beings: health, happiness, social good, etc. By nature we are disposed towards these ends, and habits are a second nature that, through our actions, make it easier or harder for us to achieve them. If going to the gym becomes an obsession that leads us to consume substances that are harmful to our health, it has undoubtedly become a bad habit. Therefore, good habits have two characteristics that differentiate them from bad habits: they allow us to think and learn while they are being carried out, and they bring us closer to the objectives that correspond to us as human beings.

4. Do not forget the ultimate goal you have set for yourself: to improve your health, to be able to understand your favorite series in its original version, to improve your image in front of others... This point does not contradict the second one, but both are complementary. We have to set short term goals deadline, but keeping the ultimate goal, which is achieved in the exercise of the habit itself.

The sports simile is always useful to understand the different characteristics of habits. Let's think, for example, of a tennis player's serve: if it becomes a closed routine that escapes our cognitive control -that is, that prevents us from thinking- it will soon become a failure: no matter how good it is, the opponent will adapt to it and overcome us with his return. What makes the serve effective is not that it is fast, strong or automatic, but that it helps the tennis player to achieve his goal, which is to win the point. The automation of the serve allows you to think about what is the best option at that moment in the match. The serve-routine moves away from the ultimate goal, which is to win the match, while the serve-learning brings the player closer to it.

And if at some point you make a double fault, don't worry: the important thing is to learn from your mistakes and put all your cognitive resources into making the next one an ace. There is plenty of time between now and the end of the year.