To Form New Habits, Don’t Overthink
If your New Year resolutions have crashed and burned by now, it may be because you thought about them too much.
A study from the University of Southern California suggests that concentrating on forming new habits just makes it less likely those habits will take hold. Habitual behavior is encoded in the brain by the procedural memory system, which doesn't involve much conscious input. Planning and deliberation are handled by the declarative memory system, which catalogs facts and events.
Researchers developed a video game that teaches people to make sushi. When people were asked to watch the video again and again -- so that the steps of making sushi became habitual -- they learned the process better when they were not given any specific instruction to try to remember what came next.
When the investigators added a line to the instructions telling participants to pay close attention, because they'd need to do the task later without instructions, the results actually got worse. People didn’t learn as well.
Naturally, there is a bit of planning and concentration involved in changing any behavior. Experts recommend setting a quit date before stopping smoking, for instance, and advise would-be quitters to identify and prepare to deal with triggers that might present obstacles to quitting. This kind of preplanning can help you succeed.
The idea is to find ways that make it possible not to have to think too hard at the actual decision point.