The Science of New Beginnings
For all of the champagne, new diets, and gym memberships folks are about to experience, only about eight percent of resolution-takers succeed in attaining their goals. What goes wrong?
Any number of answers might hold a kernel of truth, but I’d offer the following: New Year’s Day is not a real new beginning.
Much as the day after your birthday is eerily similar to the day before, New Year’s Day is a superficial temporal landmark. It is fun to celebrate, and a wonderful time to take stock of the year, but it does not mark a shift in outlook, experience, or environment.
Resolutions made in celebration of New Year’s Day are powered by willpower alone. Usually, this is not enough. When willpower is coupled with a truly new beginning, however, breaking out of old routines becomes much easier.
The power of new beginnings
Though we all like to believe we are the master of our own destiny, the captain of our ship, this is not entirely the case. Much of our lives are routine. We frequent the same restaurants, purchase the same groceries, and pop into the same shops on our way to and from work.
Some of these decisions were made consciously before they evolved into habits, but others were not. Many choices were made solely upon the most convenient options. If there is a fast food joint in your new office building and the nearest alternative in a sizable walk, an increase in burger consumption may very well be in your future.
This can work in our favor as well. The only time in my life that I consistently visited the gym Monday through Friday was when I worked two blocks from one. Coincidence? I think not.
Science agrees. Dr. Wendy Wood has spent her career looking at habits. Study after study has shown that environmental cues matter. In one study, students who habitually attended sporting events spoke more loudly when shown pictures of stadiums. In another, cinema popcorn-eaters ate similar amounts independent of hunger levels or popcorn quality.
The human default is routine and environmental cues are key. The sights and sounds of familiar habit-associated places trigger our routines. Pulling ourselves from the familiar requires willpower. New beginnings that disrupt these environments tear up all the cues, recalculate the options, and allow us the luxury of building new routines from scratch.
A 1994 qualitative study found that of 119 stories of success and failure, changing location played a statistically significant role. 36% percent of successful reports included a change of location, while only 13% of failed attempts to change involved a move.
Inspired by this work, Wood and her colleagues set out to quantify the effect. Instead of concentrating on habit development, however, they looked at habit disruption.
In a 2005 paper, Wood and her colleagues track a cohort of college-aged transfer students. They looked specifically at how exercise, newspaper reading, and tv watching habits evolved as the young people changed schools. The students were surveyed with questions about their current and intended habits a month before their transfer. They completed a second survey a month after.
Across all three activities, strong habits were generally maintained if the performance context remained constant. When the context had changed (if, for example, trail runners had to acclimate to the gym), intention became crucial in habit maintenance. Intention was also the deciding factor for those with previously weak habits. This applied across all three habits.
“Away from familiar cues to bad habits, people are freed to act in new ways. Beware, though, that changing everyday contexts also removes cues to good habits,” Wood explains.
Bringing this science to everyday life
Major changes in environment, such as moving or changing jobs, are great for restructuring habits, but they don’t come along every day. What can people do to use the science of new beginning in everyday life?
Small, physical cues can shift your environment enough to make a difference. The idea is the same only applied on a smaller scale. You may not be able to change restaurants available near your office, but you can change the contents of your refrigerator in a way that makes packing lunch an easier option.
The same logic can be applied to any number of goals. If you’d like to limit your screen time, keep the television in a closet. You’re less likely to watch it if you have to pull it out. If you’re not drinking, skip happy hour at your favorite bar.
Replace your living room rug with a yoga matt to remind yourself to stretch out and strike a pose. It likely won’t be as effective as moving to a Rishikesh, but you may be surprised by how small cues can make a big difference.