It’s still January, but maybe your shiny new exercise machine has already turned into an overpriced clothes rack, or your resolve to give up ice cream is just making Ben and Jerry richer. If so, you’re far from alone. Studies have shown that only a tiny 8% of New Year’s resolutions hold up for more than a few weeks. But if you’re beating yourself up over it, stop.
Most good intentions go awry, says Bob Nease, because our brains are “hardwired for inattention and inertia.” As chief scientist at mail-order pharmaceutical giant Express Scripts, studying the question of how to get people to take their medications as prescribed, Nease came up with a system for closing the gap between what we mean to do and how we actually behave. Now he’s written a book about it, The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results.
“The most important thing to realize is that nearly all of what we do is automatic rather than deliberate,” Nease says. That’s because the human brain processes about 10 million bits of information each second, but the conscious mind can handle only about 50 bits at a time. The rest of our mental energy is tied up in stuff we don’t think about, like seeing, blinking, breathing—and falling back on familiar habits.
To change our behavior, we need to trip up that natural tendency. Let’s say you resolved to lose 10 pounds in 2016, but you find yourself automatically reaching for the mashed potatoes on the dinner table or mowing down a bag of pretzels while you’re watching TV. Getting rid of all the carbs in the house is one strategy, since you can’t eat what isn’t there. Nease explains in his book how his wife Gina gave up TV by getting rid of all the televisions in the house.
But here’s a less draconian approach: Move the foods you’re trying to avoid to an inconvenient place. “Put the potatoes in the kitchen, for example, rather than right in front of you, so you have to make a conscious decision to go and get some,” says Nease. “The idea is to turn an unthinking behavior into a conscious choice. Creating even a small moment of hesitation, where you have to decide what to do instead of acting on autopilot, really helps.”
Another tactic is something Nease calls “piggybacking,” which simply means attaching a habit you’re struggling to acquire to something you already enjoy—like listening to your favorite music while you exercise.
Businesses have been demonstrating how well this works for a long time now. One of the many case studies in The Power of Fifty Bits points out, for instance, that people were brushing their teeth for millennia (ancient Egyptians used twigs and leaves), but the practice wasn’t widespread until about 100 years ago. That’s when Pepsodent marketed the first mint toothpaste. Notes Nease, “It was tasty, so dental health became an afterthought.” Combining a new habit with something fun, he adds, can have the same effect.
Whatever you do, don’t waste time berating yourself for your lack of willpower. “Most of our bad behaviors don’t reflect bad intentions or weak moral fiber. We usually make pretty good choices if we stop and consciously decide,” says Nease. “It’s a matter of getting around how our brains are designed. We’re fighting millions of years of evolution.”