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Make or Break a Habit

Here we go again. New Year’s Resolutions! It’s 2022 and we’ve had almost 2 years of a pandemic and now there seems to be a light at the end of proverbial tunnel, or is it just a new normal? Every January 1st businesses are busy because of resolutions. People strive for change, yet why is it that resolutions rarely last? Working over 35 years for YMCA’s, we relished every January because of all the new people joining.

Understanding neurobiology around habits is important to see how they are formed. Reading The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg) and Atomic Habits (James Clear) provides a very easy path to understanding those basics in habits, and, thus, successfully achieving your resolutions.

Habit Formation

Habits emerge to do one thing very well – save brain effort. Our brains consistently look for ways to make almost any routine into a habit. Habits provide the brain to ramp down its efforts, allowing us to stop thinking about basic behaviors in order to devote mental energy to more complex thinking.


Your brain has developed roadways and pathways on how to send signals to different parts of the brain. That is how habits form – consistent routines creating those neurological pathways. Plasticity is the brains way to change those pathways and send signals to different areas to warrant a new response. Much the way muscles can grow and change, our brains are capable of much the same thing.

Keys to Successful Resolutions

1. No more multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is not only near impossible to do, studies show that it actually makes us dumber. So, if you’re trying to do work while reading this article, STOP. Pick one thing over the other and focus on that. You will be much more efficient and better at one rather than 2, 3 or 4 things.

2. Studies show that having a list of more than 2 resolutions or goals, will result in failing at the entire list. Keep your list short – one or two keystone goals. Much like multi-tasking, you will be more successful at concentrating on one or two things. Picking what those one or two strategic goals or resolutions will be very important. Take your time to devote to the Wildly Important Goals (from The Four Disciplines of Execution) and make sure it’s one or two goals.

3. Understand the Habit Loop (Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit) of Cue-Routine-Reward: “First there is a cue (trigger) that tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is a routine (mental, physical or emotional). Finally, the reward, which instructs the brain on whether this is worth remembering for the future.”

4. Follow James Clear’s Four Laws of Behavior Change (Atomic Habits).

Four Laws of Behavior Change

1. Make it Obvious: Apply the Implementation Intention – “I will (insert Behavior) at (Time/Day) in (Location). And/or Habit Stacking – pairing a new habit with a current one: After (Current Habit), I will (New Habit).” Habit Stacking is particularly helpful in allowing yourself permission to continue a current habit when combining a new habit: I will only watch videos on my phone when I am exercising on a stationary bike.

2. Make it Attractive – we are dopamine-driven animals. Dopamine is a highly addictive neurotransmitter that the brain releases each time we finish a task or make progress towards a goal (the larger the goal, the more dopamine is released). Addictive behaviors like cocaine, nicotine, alcohol and gambling all release dopamine. The anticipation of the reward is actually what gets us to take action. The greater the anticipation, the greater the dopamine spike. Combining a new habit with a reward is important.

3. Make it Easy – make your good habits more convenient. Habits form through repetition. It’s the number times you perform the habit, not how long you have been performing it. Showing up every day to work on a goal is more conducive to habit forming than doing long intervals a few times per week. Studies show that exercising 5 minutes a day will do more to build a habit than exercising 30 minutes, three times per week. Those 5 minutes will eventually turn into longer and longer intervals.

4. Make it Satisfying- our brains are designed for instant gratification. We value the present more than the future. The consequences of bad habits are delayed while the rewards are immediate. Good habits, typically produce the opposite reward. This fourth law increases the odds that a behavior will be repeated next time.

Pick out a habit you want to add or change:

Cue – Routine – Reward

What delayed reward is there?

Commit to it (accountability)

Visualize how you want it to play out.

Journal your progress

I will ____when____where____

What keystone habit will ensure success?

Shoot for 1% improvement everyday .


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