Before you make New Year’s resolutions for 2021, read this to understand why maintaining good habits in 2020 may have been so difficult and some things you can try to stay on track for the new year.
For many of us, 2020 has been one of the most challenging years of our lives. When we are in an extremely challenging situation, our bodies activate various automatic physiological processes to keep us alive. One of these processes is called hypervigilance and is there to keep us aware of danger and safe from it. Hypervigilance is a heightened state of awareness that occurs in the body when we face danger. It is a protective mechanism so that the body is ready to either run away or fight (or freeze) and is designed to keep us safe. The problem is that being on high alert constantly not only keeps our stress hormones chronically elevated, but is also mentally exhausting. Have you noticed how exhausted you’ve been recently?
During this time, many people have also fallen off the ‘healthy lifestyle’ wagon and are feeling deeply ashamed. My hope is that this article will give some understanding about why people may have struggled and also some tools for getting back on track.
Now, let’s talk about willpower. Willpower is the ability to delay gratification, resist and restrain impulses in order to meet long-term goals. The problem is that willpower is also mentally exhausting. In fact, it has been proven in numerous studies that when you use willpower for a protracted period of time, the ability to do other difficult tasks is diminished. This is something author Shawn Actor speaks about in more detail in his book ‘The Happiness Advantage’, a book I highly recommend everyone reads at least twice a year.
Back to willpower. When a person adopts a new habit, some willpower will be required. While old established behaviours have well developed neural pathways that make them easier for the body to do, new habits require new pathways to be formed. This is where the hard work has to happen. I like to use the analogy of a lovely tarred freeway. It took a lot of work and requires some maintenance for this road to be the first choice. For a new habit, imagine you’re trying to find your way through thick brush. First you need to be committed to this new path. Then you need some tools to hack away at the bushes. Then you need to keep taking that path and to maintain it so that new bush growth doesn’t obstruct the path again. Finally the path must become well trodden and then, it becomes a new and easy path; a path of less resistance. As humans, we are programmed to take the path of least resistance. With a new habit, until that path is the path of least resistance, we’ve got to give ourselves a helping hand.
Can you now start to see why it became so easy to fall off the wagon during the pandemic? We are already mentally hypervigilant for so many months, chronically stressed, sleep deprived, willpower will also be finite. Why? Because our willpower weakens as we use it. So, if we are using willpower to complete a task, the longer we draw on that resource, the weaker it gets. However, once we have converted that challenging new behaviour into a habit, a friend, something that we love and enjoy, then it becomes easy. It becomes the path of least resistance.
So how do we get through the difficult grey area between ‘new habit’ and an easy path of least resistance?
In his book ‘Flow- The Psychology of Happiness’ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduces the principle of ‘activation energy’. In physics activation energy is the spark that is required to kickstart a chemical reaction. In creating a new habit, it takes the same amount of physical and mental energy to kickstart a new habit.
The higher the activation energy, the more difficult it is to start and maintain a new habit. On the flip side, we can use this information to make good habits easier by decreasing the activation energy and we can also make bad habits more difficult by increasing the activation energy for the bad habit.
Here are examples of how this works and things you could try:
- Keep only ‘Yes’ foods in the house. When you have easy access to ‘no’ foods when you are just starting out, this is self sabotage. It is extremely difficult to have to constantly use willpower to avoid no foods. Instead making it difficult (by having to drive to the shops, mask, hand sanitiser and all) to gain access to ‘no’ foods will at the very least, give you time to change your mind.
- If you absolutely must have ‘no’ foods in the house for others, make it difficult to get access to them by increasing the activation energy to access them. Put them out of sight….way out of sight, in a box on a shelf that requires a ladder to get to. (Maybe even in a locked box and hide the key?) Make sure there are lots of obstacles before you get to the box. If you’re someone who sneaks a snack at night and you have a house alarm with internal beams, set the alarm so that you even have to deactivate the alarm to get to the snack. Taking these measures to help you until the craving phase has passed and you start to feel great and able to resist easily can really help in the short term and in the long run. All this may sound very silly but it doesn’t hurt to try for yourself.
- Something else you can try is to follow people on social media that you admire. Surround yourself with people who are trying to do the same as you. When you engage with people you admire, mirror neurons in the brain fire and ‘mirror’ what you are seeing. It’s as if we are doing what they are doing. Suddenly, it seems more possible to take on that exercise challenge. This is why, when we find our tribe, our community, it is easier to do difficult tasks. It’s our mirror neurons that show us that it is indeed possible.
- Some people choose to go to bed in their gym clothes so that they can reduce the activation energy required to get them to the gym. Others lay their gym clothes out the night before ready to go. You can keep your gym equipment at hand (I keep my resistance band at easy reach in the living space as a reminder and to reduce that activation energy.
Willpower is mentally exhausting and cannot be solely relied upon to keep up new habits no matter how mentally fit we might be. If you are serious about turning new habits into easy behaviour, think about trying the above tricks to help you pave your path.
Wishing you well.
About the author
Dr Hassina Kajee is co-founder and Medical Director of The Noakes Foundation ‘Eat Better South Africa’ program and was instrumental in overseeing and facilitating the Foundation’s first ever Eat Better South Africa! intervention programme conducted in the Ocean View community. She has since advised on a number of the Foundations subsequent interventions. Her enthusiasm and passion about the LCHF eating science emanates through her. She believes that prevention starts with educating and empowering her patients and the general public with knowledge of the tenets of optimal health including optimal nutrition backed by robust science.
Dr Kajee turned her clinical practice towards chronic disease prevention after years of practicing ‘palliative’ chronic medicine at the tertiary level where she headed up the High Care Unit at Groote Schuur Hospital. She currently practices privately; in addition, she advises as Medical Director of Eat Better South Africa, The Nutrition Network and as a director on the Board of The Noakes Foundation. As a wife and mother of 2 young children, she is passionate about preventative health care and believes in supporting prevention as early as possible- at the prenatal level.