Though it’s now February and those resolution lists are a distant memory, there’s likely a residual echo of the changes we wanted to make but haven’t quite made. What pushes us from our 5am run down West Sands every morning to rolling out of bed forty minutes past the alarm and shoving a Danish in our mouths?
This apparent lack of willpower and failure is frustrating, and to say there is one cause would be misleading. However, a few common issues are clear. The first is the belief of the fixed trait.
We’ve all done the I’m just not a [insert characteristic] person, I’m just not smart enough to do [insert activity], I’m just not made to [insert goal]. GCSE biology brings to mind vivid images of nature vs. nurture, the implication being that how you are, how ill you get, how you age and the like are a fairly even split between genes and environment. However, the weight we give nature when it comes to our behaviour is heavily skewed. Environment is supreme.
When thinking critically this makes sense. Our species managed to populate the globe, manipulate surroundings for food, shelter, tools, and create complex social hierarchies which constantly rose and fell, sometimes in the space of a few months. If we inherited incredibly rigid behaviours and thoughts – whether useful or not – then as soon as the environment changed even a little we’d have had it.
Holding the belief of inherent traits is not just unhelpful – it is wrong. Disregarding such ideas can be freeing. Another barrier to change is the idea that – though our brains were once malleable pieces of clay – they’ve spent so much time in the oven that they’re now fixed for life. This outdated view is again extremely unhelpful. People are capable of great change and great recovery, even in old age. Look to stroke victims regaining their ability to move limbs, addicts who remain clean for the rest of their lives, adults learning new instruments, languages or perhaps unlearning destructive behaviours. Partner these with outside sources of neuroplasticity, from extremes like psychedelics or electrical stimulation, to less radical things like CBT and exercise, and the possibilities for change are great. And though it may be true that it would have been easier if we were small to inflict these changes upon ourselves we wish would come naturally to us now, we must remember that in that state, we had very little control or choice over what shaped us because of our inherent malleability.
It is only now, decades later and with certain mental faculties, that we can decide who we want to be. But say you’ve gotten over these first two hurdles – you may still find yourself stuck. Why? During the semester one, at around 3 pm every day, I’d have the sudden urge to leave my room, walk to a wonderful little café nearby, pick up a lightly sugared and golden croissant, then return to my room with the goods. I’d set it on a plate, make some coffee if I hadn’t bought any, and then I’d sit down to eat. Joyous, no? It was – the first fifteen times. Then it became automatic.
Even if I was in the middle of something, it’d be up, down to the cafe, buy, return and eat. I realised one afternoon with great sadness that I didn’t even like the taste of the croissant anymore. One bite and I’d want it gone. What a waste! My level of cognitive dissonance was high and I felt stuck. I knew I didn’t want that pesky little croissant but I couldn’t stop. The problem was simple. I had created a habit. And once a path is well-worn inside your brain, it can be tricky to forge another. To get out of a loop like that, the best thing is awareness. Identify the trigger (i.e. what time is it), look at the habit (going to buy a croissant), and look for the reward you’re seeking. In my case, it was simply a break. So instead of going to that café, I now go for a walk, or take five minutes to myself.
Simply swap the habit to something better which gives the same reward. It’s all rather silly, isn’t it, waiting for the beginning of the new year, or next Monday, or simply tomorrow to change something we’re unhappy about. Then we decide we want a complete transformation in a week and it never happens. Our impatience, superficial motivations, and the instant fix society persistently rubs in our face (especially since it is highly profitable) is a set up for disappointment and failure. Change takes work and time. Not weeks, but months. Possibly years. The only thing that needs to be remembered is that our brains are vast and wonderful networks, capable of reinvention.
We went from drooling, crying, bed wetting blobs to people who now only occasionally re-engage with such behaviours when intoxicated. Every one of us has come a long way. So go on, dig out that list, be realistic, and put some effort in. If you do, it will change your life, perhaps only a little and hopefully for the better.