The power to change: How to set intentions and actually follow through

Happy New Year to you and your loved ones!


The busy, joyful and sometimes stressful holiday season is over. Children are back to school, and many of us are stepping into our usual routines. The start of a new year is often a time to reflect on what we've achieved, and also on which areas of our lives we might like to change. This is a natural thing to do--it's actually coded into our genes. Making New Year's resolutions reportedly began when Babylonians made promises to the gods to improve their behaviour and actions so they could receive good favour. 4000 years later, we’re still keeping the tradition alive.


But is changing our actions, thoughts or habits as easy as just…wanting to?


Some of us make resolutions only to find that within a week or two things are right back where they were before. A resolution to eat less sugar might work for a few days, but then during a difficult afternoon at the office it becomes impossible to resist sneaking cookies from the break room. A resolution to run a mile a day could be going fine until that dark, dreary morning when the skies open up while you’re jogging through the park, sending you back to the warmth of your bed. A resolution to be more patient with your children can dissolve instantly after a sleepless night with a restless toddler who demands every ounce of your attention the next day. Often after feeling we have failed to keep our own expectations, we give up and go back to our old ways.


Lately there have been many blogs and articles about the value of setting intentions instead of resolutions. A resolution sounds binding; something you must do. It’s a fact of being human that some of us will rise up against ourselves when faced with something we feel we must do, not unlike a defiant child. An intention is gentler, calmer. Not something that has to be done, but something you would like to do. You could intend to be kinder to your cranky neighbour, or intend to do more charity work.


But do intentions work any better than resolutions? Not if you don’t put in some real effort. Forming new habits is not as simple as just wanting to, at least not for most of us.


There is a wonderful article written by Dr. Sarah McKay for the Chopra Centre about the neuroscience behind how we form and break habits. According to her, when we have negative thoughts like “I always give in to my sugar cravings,” or “I’ll never get fit and healthy” or “I’m just impatient by nature. I can't change,” and we think those thoughts on a regular basis, our neurons keep firing until they create a circuit. Eventually our brain wires itself to accept those beliefs. 


Just like that, our thoughts become habit. Now, whenever we are triggered by something like a tiring day at the office, a rainy morning or a tough night with the kids, our brain goes into default and accesses the place where the negative thoughts are stored, allowing us to continue our undesired habits.


The good news is, if we know that bad thoughts are wired into our brains by repetition, it goes without saying that good thoughts are too. According to Dr. McKay, if you learn to recognize your triggers, you can wire in a healthy habit. The trick is to be mindful of what leads you down a path you don’t want to be on, and to tell yourself different stories, over and over again, until you override the old habits.


So how long will it take?


One study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period.  The researchers analyzed the data and discovered that, on average, it takes more than 2 months and up to 8 months before a new behavior becomes automatic, depending on the person and the circumstances.


So if you want to form new habits and have them stick, be patient and kind with yourself. If you slip up and revert to an old, unwanted behaviour, remember that it’s not a failure on your part. It just takes awhile, but it will be well worth the wait. 


Here’s to a brand-new year filled with light, love and all the positive change you desire!


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