If you’re like me, you never keep up your New Year’s resolution. My willpower often only lasts until the middle of the month – around the time my credit card statement rolls in and a dismal slush covers the sidewalks. That’s because many resolutions – whether it’s losing weight or weaning ourselves off Facebook – try to dislodge rock-solid habits.
Think of habits as your brain on autopilot. We reach for habits subconsciously and automatically, using repetitive mental shortcuts – called heuristics – to get us through the day with the smallest exertion of brainpower necessary. Once a habit is solidified, it occupies a permanent space in your brain, triggering automatic loops in the hippocampus – a seahorse-shaped structure that plays a role in consolidating memories – after the appropriate stimulus is given.
Habits aren’t necessarily bad for you. Looking both ways before you cross the street or buckling your seat belt when you start the car are both habits that could potentially save your life. When these processes have hardwired themselves into your synaptic network, it allows the brain to operate at a greater efficiency, freeing up the space for us to do things like strategize and socialize.
But with great efficiency comes great responsibility. When we try to alter these habits, it takes an enormous amount of energy; much more than a few half-hearted attempts to go to the gym or cut back on Internet time.
So how much energy, exactly? Well, according to a recent study, it took subjects a median of 66 continuous days to form new habits that replaced the old ones.
That means if your New Year’s resolution is to become a gym person, working out won’t start feeling like a part of your normal routine for another ten weeks. No pain, no gain is right. Or, more accurately: No 66 days of pain, no gain.
Bear in mind this is only if you never, ever stray from the regimen. You’d have to go to the gym for 66 days in a row in order for the behavior to become a habit. If you slack off once, then it’s over.
Let’s say you bomb an exam and opt to hit up Charley’s rather than go to the CCRB. Does that mean you can pick up the habit formation where you left off? Nope, you’d have to start the process all over again.
With all the mental heavylifting it involves, it’s a miracle anybody sticks with a New Year’s resolution at all.