newton-s-cradle-balls-sphere-action-60582Making a list of resolutions for the new year remains a popular activity. Many of us vow that the coming year will be the one where we will finally lose weight, make more money, and meet all our deadlines, only to find, in a few weeks, that all our goals and plans have fallen to the wayside, forgotten.

One reason why it’s so hard to step away from old routines and establish new ones is that it takes more than simple willpower, alone, to break our bad habits.

Our Practical Brain vs. Our Emotional One

When you go about your day, do you actively think about each of your actions, or do you often find yourself operating in “robot” mode? Researchers believe that nearly 40% of our everyday actions are not conscious decisions, made after weighing all the facts, upsides and downsides. Instead, rather than considering all the possibilities before we act, we perform established routines because of the force of habit, even when we know that in the long run, the consequences of a specific habit are not in our favour!

These automatic reflexes arise from the more primitive part of our brain known as the amygdala. It is the same part of our brain that is believed to give rise to our emotions, especially our feelings of fear and anger. To be able to change our behaviour we first must learn how to rein in our automatic, emotional responses by putting our pre-frontal cortex in charge. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that is responsible for rational thought and practical action. It serves as an executive control over our actions and allows us to control our emotions, but we must give it time to act.

Switch Gears with a Single Breath

Before you can begin to control your behaviour, you must give your pre-frontal cortex time to take control. An easy way to do this is to deliberately slow down throughout your day. Before you act or respond, pause for a moment or two and take a deep breath and slowly release it. By controlling your breathing, you are giving your pre-frontal cortex time to take control of your brain and assess the situation rationally before you act!

Use Your Rational Brain to Change Your Habits

Once you learn how to use the rational part of your brain to your advantage, it becomes easier to change your habits and achieve your goals! Activities that help you focus on the “here and now,” such as mindfulness, meditation and exercise can help you increase your control over your emotional responses. Practising good self-care, such as eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of rest will help you to increase your control and build your willpower, further improving your ability to break free from bad habits.

You can continue to build your mental strength by setting goals that progress in their level of difficulty. Just remember to break your larger goals into smaller ones and define how you will measure your progress along the way. Don’t forget to celebrate your progress as you work towards changing your old, established routines and building new ones that will help you to improve your performance, outlook and life!