Forming New Habits

The month of January, when the new year is celebrated in most of the world, is named after the Roman god Janus. Because he had two faces, he could look back on the past year and forward into the next. He was the god of beginnings and the guardian of doors.

Making resolutions at the start of a new year is an ancient and established tradition. Apparently, the early Babylonians’ most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment.1 We make resolutions, but we don’t seem well-equipped to keep them. One reason we have a hard time changing old bad habits or forming good new ones is that sometimes our expectations are too extreme. Instead of making some gradual permanent lifestyle changes, we want instant success.

Fitness guru Jack LaLanne (1914–2011), who continued with his daily exercise regimen well into his 90s, observed, “The average person means well, but they set their goals too high. They [try] it two or three times and say, ‘This is too tough.’ And they quit.”

When I used to do private English tutoring in Indonesia and Japan, I was confronted with this type of unrealistic expectations. Many of my students thought that if they hired a native English speaker to give them lessons, they would learn through some sort of magical osmosis, without doing the homework and study needed to make progress. It just doesn’t work that way. We’re conditioned to want quick results, whereas in reality, it often takes work over an extended period of time to achieve anything worthwhile.

Messages are sent along the pathways of our brain through neurons that are connected to one another. These like to travel on known pathways, the “comfortable” way, and it takes time and effort to create new ones.

Carlo DiClemente, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Maryland, suggests setting realistic goals and making daily progress to realize them: “We all wish some things. We might say, ‘I wish I were a better parent.’ But that’s pretty vague. Maybe you say, ‘I’m going to count to five before I start yelling at my kids.’ That’s good, but then you discover you need a plan to remind you to count to five.”

Armed with the right goals, the desire, and the persistence, you can form a new habit this year. You can become the master—rather than the victim—of circumstances.