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How to keep your 2013 resolutions: Jeremy Dean on 'Making Habits'

The sun has risen on a new year, a time for (once the hangover has subsided) fulfilling all the resolutions we made last night. Getting more exercise. Writing thank-you notes. Flossing.

Or maybe not. Jeremy Dean, founder of Psyblog and author of “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick” knows that New Year's resolutions rarely last.

He explains how we might have a chance of sticking to our New Year's resolutions -- and why bad habits are so darn hard to break.

What inspired your book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits"?

It's got to be one of the oldest questions we ask about ourselves: why is it so difficult to change? Say you want to change your diet, start practicing the piano, stop checking your email so much, or do anything else that requires sustaining a behavioral change over time. Why do we feel so strongly that we'll do these things, and yet, when the moment arrives, old habits take over? It's the answer to this question that makes the psychology of habits so interesting.

How do bad habits form?

In just the same way as all the good ones! All our habits form through repeating the same actions in the same situations.  Each time we repeat an action (or thought) in the same situation it gets stronger. Over time the unconscious takes over until we perform habits automatically, with little input from our conscious selves. This is part of the reason habits are so hard to change: We do them without thinking.

Why is it so difficult for us to form and consistently repeat healthy habits? And similarly, why is it so difficult for us to break bad habits? (Seriously, why can’t I stop biting my nails?)

Making habits is difficult because most people don't go about it in the right way. The strategies people choose spontaneously -- like setting vague goals and trying to suppress a bad habit -- tend not to work. The other reason is that new habits often clash with our existing old habits. When new meet old, it's the long-established habits that tend to win out.

(Have you tried painting that yucky-tasting stuff on your nails? That's a great example of pre-commitment -- see below...)

What are some of the factors that determine how successful a person is in establishing good habits and breaking bad habits?

The most important factor is the mental and behavioral strategies you use. Some good strategies include making very specific plans that link actions with situations. For example: "If I feel hungry between meals, then I will eat an apple." Another is to pre-commit when your self-control is high. For example, if you're trying to stop playing a game console, give the controller to a friend for safe-keeping. This will help protect you when your self-control is weak.

What are some of the bad habits you’ve successfully broken? What are some of the new, good habits you’ve instilled?

Checking my email too much is a real bugbear for me. Now I try to have specific slots in the day to do my email instead of checking continuously.

At the moment I'm most proud of my new seven-days-a-week flossing regime, which I instilled while I was writing the book. It may only be a small thing but it represents a major battle that I've won against myself. It turns out that flipping from evening to morning did the trick for me. It's amazing how these types of little tweaks can work.

When breaking a habit, does going 'cold turkey' work best?

The problem with going cold turkey is that habits are always lying there in the unconscious (and probably the conscious!) waiting to be reactivated. You can't totally eradicate old patterns of behavior. What you can do is replace them with new ones. The research suggests that the best strategy is to replace a bad old habit with a good new one.

When implementing  a good habit, you discuss the importance of rewarding yourself, but only sparingly. Why is it important to not rely on a reward system?

If you make a new habit conditional on a reward then you are unconsciously telling yourself that you are only doing it for the reward. A good habit should be its own reward. Research has shown that internal motivation, which isn't conditioned on rewards, is usually stronger.

What would you say the most important things are to remember when creating a good habit or breaking a bad habit?

When making a good habit the most important thing is to make it small and do-able. To make the new habit stick, repeat it in the same circumstances. Each time you repeat it, the habit gets stronger, until eventually you will perform it automatically.

Breaking bad habits can be difficult because we naturally try to suppress them. Ironically this can make them become stronger and all the more likely to be performed. Replacing bad habits with good ones is a better way to go.

Do you believe in making New Year’s resolutions? What do you advise for people who may already be breaking them?

The thing I don't like about New Year's resolutions is the idea that we have to transform ourselves all in one go, at one time of the year. It's far better to choose something small that takes you a little way towards your goal, that you can accomplish. With your first small habit change under your belt, you can make other small tweaks to your routines. And there's no need to wait until January 2014!

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