By Dr. Anthony Policastro

New Year’s Day is a time for resolutions. Many people make them. Most people don’t keep them. Part of that is related to the fact they look at them as resolutions to do something different.

In actuality, the desire to do something different suggests that they are trying to replace an old habit with a new habit. The problem is that we are creatures of habit. Simply resolving to stop an old habit does not work. Deciding to just replace it with a new habit does not work.

Habits form via a predictable pattern. The pattern is called a habit loop. The first part of the loop is the trigger. It is the event that starts the pattern. The second part is the actual behavior. The third part takes the form of a reward to make a habit a positive thing.

For example, we have certain bedtime habits. One of those is brushing our teeth. The trigger is bedtime. The action is the actual brushing. The reward is a refreshed feeling in our mouth. So we continue to do that.

Habit formation comes from a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is involved with emotions, memories and pattern recognition. All three of those things are associated with habits.

When we discuss New Year’s resolutions, we are talking about changing the way the basal ganglia reacts. We cannot simply decide to do so and expect it to be effective.

Last week in the Christmas article, I wrote about how putting up a Christmas tree results in a release of dopamine in the brain. For many habits the reward at the end of the loop is a dopamine release. We can become addicted to having that happen. That is why bad habits occur so easily.

Our new resolutions need to begin with identifying the triggers. If the triggers keep on occurring, we will fall into the old habit. Once we identify those triggers, we can then recognize the behavior that follows. That allows us to short circuit the process at the beginning.

The next step is to try replacing the old behavior with a new behavior. If the goal is to just stop the old behavior, then we tend to dwell on it. The more we think about it, the more it creates the urge to repeat it.

If we, however, switch to a different behavior, then our efforts will go toward concentrating on completing that behavior instead of avoiding the old behavior. The cigarette smoker may try something like chewing Nicorette gum.

In addition, it helps to have a positive reason for wanting to do the new behavior. Simply deciding that you will switch behavior is only part of the battle. The new behavior must become more attractive than the old one was.

Ultimately, the reward must change from releasing dopamine for the old behavior to releasing dopamine for the new behavior. Once that goal is accomplished, there will be a new habit.

If you have already started making resolutions for 2023, now is the time to recognize them as a habit. Now is the time to develop a plan to create a new rewarding habit. If you do not do so, as they say “old habits die hard” and you will fall back into what was rewarding behavior.