Failing to keep New Year’s resolutions is just about as popular as making them in the first place. In fact, 25 per cent of people who make a New Year’s resolution are proven to give up by 7 January every year. Many of us are enticed by the clean slate that the time brings along with the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, so we make vows to become healthier, happier and more productive. I mean, who doesn’t want a good excuse to at least try to ditch their bad habits and toxic relationships? But why do so many of us fail, or often give up completely?
Fortunately, behavioural psychologists have been investigating what makes people turn good intentions into long-term habits for over 100 years now. If you want to ensure that your resolutions don’t fail, try using these five tricks from behaviour change psychology to master the art of ‘new year, new me’:
Most people would say that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but according to science, that’s a myth. It turns out that 21 days is the minimum amount of time needed, but on average it actually takes around two months to form a new habit. Sometimes, it can even take up to eight whole months if the habit involves a significant lifestyle change.
The length of time needed really depends on how much of a lifestyle change you’re aiming for—for example, deciding to eat a piece of fruit every day will be fairly easy to integrate into your existing routine. However, if you’re trying to overhaul and revamp your entire diet, don’t be disappointed if you don’t develop new taste buds within a month. Forming new habits is a process, and embracing a longer timeline means that you allow enough time to fail and learn from it, rather than seeing it as a reason for giving up.
When it comes to making New Year’s resolutions that stick, try implementing mini habits that you can progressively add into your routine every month. Success is more likely to follow if you set small goals based on achieving a larger goal, as multiple short-term goals are guaranteed to help motivate you in the pursuit of your long-term ambitions. For example, if you want to improve your diet, start with smaller changes like making healthier swaps while you’re out grocery shopping or trying one new recipe a week. Sounds like a good start, right?
In 2017, a group of researchers investigated why only some people were able to stick to their resolutions with ease while most failed miserably. They were surprised to discover that only one thing predicted long-term success. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter how motivated people were, nor how important they believed their resolutions to be. The only factor that predicted adherence to a long-term goal was whether someone actively enjoyed the behaviour they performed to achieve the goal.
When you enjoy something, the psychological process releases the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter dopamine, which leads to feelings of pleasure and happiness. Many addictive habits—such as smoking, drinking alcohol or eating junk food—are highly rewarding because they result in an instant spike of dopamine. Our brains are hardwired to prefer activities that quickly reward us with this neurotransmitter, which means you have to get creative when it comes to resolutions based on long-term benefits.
One way to do that is by pairing a highly rewarding behaviour (say drinking coffee) with a healthy habit to create a positive association in your brain. For instance, if you want to exercise before work and you love drinking coffee in the morning, make it a rule to only drink coffee after putting your gym clothes on or treat yourself to a coffee on your way to the gym. Soon your brain will learn to associate gym preps with the enjoyment of drinking coffee.
Although tackling addictive behaviour is more difficult, there are ways to break the vicious cycle between cravings and bad habits. London-based psychiatrist and addiction expert, Doctor Alberto Pertusa, recommends trying the famous five-second rule to override cravings. The rule is pretty simple: as soon as you crave something—like a strong drink or a cigarette—start counting backwards (5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0). As soon as you finish counting, you have to immediately launch into any kind of physical activity without much thought, so that there’s no time for your thoughts to creep back in.
The 5-second rule works because counting backwards requires more mental effort than counting forwards, thus engaging the prefrontal cortex in your brain to temporarily override cravings or procrastination. Launching yourself into another activity also helps to distract and stimulate your brain, which reduces the desire for dopamine. In Doctor Pertusa’s experience, using the five-second rule to improve willpower can become a positive habit in itself, although it may not work for everyone.
Have you ever tried to stop thinking about something, only to end up obsessing over it instead? Psychology studies have confirmed that trying to give up a bad habit by simply telling yourself not to do it can ironically lead to a behavioural rebound effect.
In one such study, people who tried to stop thinking about eating chocolate for a mere five minutes actually ended up eating more than people who didn’t. Resolutions that focus on avoiding or suppressing a specific behaviour work in similar ways. Another large-scale study of over 1,000 people discovered that New Year’s resolutions based on avoidance were far less successful than ones driven by positive motivation in the long term.
That doesn’t mean you can’t give up a bad habit, but instead of trying to avoid it (and maybe failing to), resolve to replace it with a new one instead. Most (highly rewarding) bad habits are triggered by stress or boredom, so choosing a replacement activity that’s also similar or just as enjoyable can trick your brain out of craving it.
Want to know why some people exercise, but most of us don’t? According to Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola, exercise undermines our sense of freedom on an unconscious level. While it may sound odd to think of yoga as a form of dictatorship, exercise poses a threat by removing our freedom of choice and taking up our leisure time.
Most of us have a few precious hours of free time a day, so we may begin to unconsciously resent how much time we spend not only exercising itself, but also getting ready or travelling to and from the gym. Over time, our willpower begins to weaken as our conscious desire to exercise battles against our unconscious ones to just chill (what our brain calls libertarian freedom and autonomy of choice). Over time, this depletes our mental energy, so eventually, when faced with the decision of whether or not to exercise, our brain follows the ‘law of least effort’—and we end up binge-watching TV instead.
To combat the law of least effort and overthrow your brain’s libertarian ideologies, you would have to resort to a psychological mind game by creating a forced choice.
To do this, feed your brain with the illusion of autonomy by allowing yourself to choose different activities depending on your mood or how much free time you have. The trick is that all your options have to involve some form of exercise, which makes it mentally easier than ‘all or nothing’ decisions about the activity. For example, if you normally go for a run but you’re tired, you can choose to go for a walk instead. If it’s raining, you’ll have to exercise indoors. You get the idea.
You may have realised by now that your brain is very demanding when it comes to behaviour change. If you want to make things more enjoyable, it’s time to engage in cognitive foreplay.
To explain how this works, it might be helpful to compare it with having a crush on someone. When you like someone, your brain tumbles you into having positive thoughts about them spontaneously, which pop up in your head often throughout the day. What’s fascinating about behaviour change is that you can convince your brain to do the same with specific habits—by actively concentrating and savouring the positive experience while you’re doing it, and also reminding yourself of how nice it was throughout the day.
Savouring the positive experience will lead to spontaneous positive thoughts about it, which fosters motivation on an unconscious level to repeat the activity. Previous studies have shown that people who do this become increasingly sensitive in their ability to derive greater enjoyment from performing positive health behaviours. On a biological level, this essentially rewires your brain to activate the pleasure and reward centres more often—call it cognitive foreplay, if you like.
Humans are creatures of habit which are formed due to a complex interplay of conscious and unconscious desires—strengthened over time with routine, repetition and positive rewards. Behaviour psychology reinforces the fact that we have the power to mould both our brain’s biology and behaviour, meaning that New Year’s resolutions can be a powerful catalyst for change if we approach our resolutions the right way. So what are you waiting for? Whip out your digital devices and start curating your 2022 vision board as a step in the right direction today.
Anna McLaughlin is an academic Neuroscientist and the Founder of Sci-translate, a digital science communication agency, based in London, UK. With a PhD in Neuroscience & Psychology, MSc in Psychiatric Research and BSc in Psychological Science, she specialises in the neuroscience of wellbeing, which spans mental health, physical health, nutrition, immune function, fitness, sleep and productivity.
In just a few days, a new year will soon dawn on us—hello, hello, 2022—and often with that comes the ever-present need to revamp, reinvent and reintroduce ourselves to the world. Usually, this can incite positive growth through change and the commitment to new, more healthy habits. One hallmark of the new year that typically finds itself on the list of New Year’s resolutions is yoga—a colonised version of yoga that is.
In recent years, practising yoga became as common as any other physical exercise but that perception of the practice couldn’t be more wrong. That’s why, as we (hopefully) continue to improve and unlearn the institutional racism that holds up society, it is imperative moving forward into 2022 that we truly look at ‘innocent’ New Year’s resolutions. If you, like me, wish to participate in this sacred practice, let’s do so in a decolonised way.
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A large contributing factor to the popularity of yoga in the New Year is the west’s successful marketing that has branded the practice as just another form of easy at-home physical exercise. According to Desai, it is this limiting misconception that ignores the vital importance of the spiritually healing elements at its foundation—ripping away key components at the heart of native yoga practices. “I know the New Year is often an opportunity to reset one’s self and yoga can be quite an instrumental part of this journey of self,” she stated, “However, where it takes away from the authenticity of yoga is when it is seen as a fitness regime or just exercise of the physical body rather than a practice to heal and reach an elevated state of consciousness.”
Desai explained that as colonial rule went on, the infinite benefits of differing yoga practices were noticed, sharply leading to its theft and repackaging as colonial discovery. “The appropriation of this then commenced where the Western colonists wanted to be seen as the discoverer of something ‘new’, but didn’t want any native connotations to the practice. Therefore, [they] started to remove any sign of the original practices, such as the use of Sanskrit terminology, and on the occasion they wanted cultural association, it was done with extreme stereotyping,” she elucidated.
This Western method that overlooks crucial pillars of yoga practice without a doubt continues today. In fact, colonised Western forms of yoga heavily dominate the field and industry without mercy. It platforms white, co-opted and appropriated forms of the practice while simultaneously silencing the voices of those who are native to the many practices of yoga. When such people, like those of the South Asian community, speak up on the insulting injustices perpetrated by those in the west, they are shunned.
“Authentic teachers are now being looked at as ‘weird’ when they teach ancient yogic philosophy, as this hasn’t been incorporated in Western yoga classes, because of fear of people feeling uncomfortable or offended (don’t worry about the people whose practice this belongs to being offended!),” Desai shared. She asked people to not move blindly into appropriated forms of the practice but to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the necessary commitments in understanding the true systems of yoga. For those new to navigating this minefield, Desai detailed the necessary steps to find and practice decolonised, ethical yoga—sign us up.
One quick internet search of the word ‘yoga’ will saturate your results page with inauthenticity. On it, you’ll find your screen littered with white able-bodied yoga instructors, commercialised and appropriated spiritual symbol t-shirts and pastel yoga mats at skyrocketing prices. It depicts the pilfered performativity of the modern-day yoga world in the west, one that pedestals those not native to the sacred practices—feeding into the ever-dominating ‘gym rat’ aesthetic. That’s all Westernised yoga is for traditional practitioners like Desai—an aesthetic.
“The glamourisation of yoga through commercialism has made people think that it is only for skinny white women wearing branded sports attire and performing gymnastics. If you are visiting spaces and attending classes where people of colour aren’t seen, or only able-bodied people are welcomed, it’s likely that the practice will not be taught in its entirety,” she revealed. Steer clear of teachers that form such privileged surface-level spaces, is the studio owner’s kernel of wisdom to pass on.
It’s a teacher’s moral obligation to create a space that is true to what yoga is really about, Desai continued. “Making yoga approachable, inclusive and non-divisive should be a foundation of every teacher and studio’s ethics. Spirituality has been erased in Western colonised versions of yoga to make people feel more ‘comfortable’ when in actual fact yoga is a spiritual practice, the two cannot be divorced,” she clarified.
For such practices, it is imperative to begin with the basics like Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga—which include the yamas and niyamas—in order to truly get to grips with its expansive spiritual reach beyond downward dog and tree pose, Desai suggested. “Appreciating the practice means really acknowledging and honouring the roots of yoga and knowing that a quick 200-hour training [course] doesn’t give you a free pass to make it all about acrobatics.”
“Being prepared to learn, educate and go in-depth into the ancient wisdom that has been left behind by our ancestors is key to representing yoga in its entirety. Learning Sanskrit terms also plays a large part in yogic practices. The Veda teaches us that each word is encoded with consciousness and words vibrate at different frequencies. Therefore, using the correct terminology ensures that you are getting the most out of your practice. The word ‘yoga’ is a Sanskrit word and if we are able to pronounce this correctly, taking time to refine your learning of other Sanskrit terms is possible,” Desai passionately shared.
Practitioners who dedicate their teaching methods and practice to the above is one of the ways in which it is appreciated, those that choose to bypass this ancient knowledge at the core of yoga undoubtedly add to its appropriation. That is the clear line in the sand for Desai—you can practice yoga, just do it ethically and support the voices and teachings of those at the core of the sacred discipline.
Desai, who owns and runs her own studio along with her own decolonising workshops, believes that those who wish to participate in yoga practice henceforth should do so by supporting Asian and Native instructors. It is these voices that need to be uplifted, and it’s not because they don’t exist or there are too few, it’s because the still-present saturation of white privilege and supremacy in society centralises white voices that drown out the rest.
“We have felt isolated and alienated in our own practice for years while teachers from non-marginalised backgrounds get put at the front of every big yoga campaign, festival or studio. Many studios and teachers fail to consider the history of the ancient Indian practice and mould their classes to adapt to western palettes. As a result, yoga has hugely lost its essence and the importance of self-discovery and self-awareness has also faded into the background,” Desai told Screen Shot.
It is therefore vital for the yoga teacher that open and honest conversations pertaining to the decolonisation of yoga are had. By doing so, awareness can be raised on the appropriation that plagues the industry. “Through my workshops, I aim to provide the tools to be able to understand the practice of yoga beyond asana (physical postures) and educate on how to appreciate the practice rather than appropriating it,” she stated.
It was Desai’s upbringing with Hinduism and her South Asian background that nurtured an interest in yoga despite not directly growing up with the practice. Her relationship with the spiritual discipline came to the forefront of her life around six years ago when she experienced a disastrous incident that left her terribly injured. As part of a charity skydive, Desai fractured her spine and was told the only way to improve her condition was the placement of metal screws in the area. As a result, she suffered the deepening of the depression and anxiety she had at the time.
After being recommended yoga, Desai felt her mental health issues and physical symptoms begin to subside. Filled with a new sense of strength and incredible determination, she travelled to Thailand to qualify as a yoga instructor and never looked back. From there, a wondrous drive was born to help heal others through her decolonised teachings and thus, she opened her own studio, “Decolonising the practice for me and for many South Asian/Indian teachers means making yoga inclusive and accessible again so that the practice is open and approachable for all.”
“I have experienced a lot of exclusion from brands, studios and even teachers and this is the opposite of what the practice teaches. This is also part of the reason that I decided to open up my own yoga studio; to create an authentic and inclusive space. I wanted to help people heal their minds and bodies through the practice of yoga while at the same time reminding them that our human journey doesn’t have to be based on external circumstances, purifying the body and its elements helps us to cultivate kindness and compassion towards others,” Desai continued.
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For Desai, the benefits of practising authentic forms of yoga are endless—something which, if conducted ethically, is open to everyone. It is a deeply beautiful, sacred and spiritual method that helps us answer the big questions about ourselves, “Yoga off the mat includes but isn’t limited to Pranayama, Kriyas and Meditation. I feel like yoga explains all the unanswered questions that we ask ourselves throughout life on a mental and spiritual level and as we delve deeper into the practice, we find out more and more about ourselves and others. It’s a huge journey of self-discovery, self-awareness and consciousness and I love this about the practice.”
Still want to dedicate 2022 to your yoga journey? Well, dear budding yogi, listen up because Desai has some parting words of advice for you, “For those who are beginning their journey, my best piece of advice would be to be prepared to open your mind to tonnes of ancient knowledge that will change you mentally and physically. Also, start your journey with South Asian/Indian teachers, or authentic teachers at the very least.”