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Change my habits? You’re joking!

Good resolutions – like eating more healthily, surfing less and getting more exercise – are easy to make. But very few people actually manage to banish bad habits for good. How do they do it?

Text: Ruth Jahn
Images: Sven Germann

Picture the scene: you return home after an exhausting day’s work, leave your shoes by the door, put your shopping on the table – and automatically reach into the fridge. You feel better after a few pieces of chocolate. But only for a moment, because you’re actually trying to lose weight and get more exercise.

Why can’t you do it? “By their very nature habits are unconscious actions, so you first have to be aware of them,” says Daniel Hausmann-Thürig, behavioural psychologist at the University of Zurich. “If you want to change your habits, you first have to understand them.”

Habits rule
Habits are the brain’s way of saving time. Repeated often enough, they become anchored deep in the brain until we act – without thinking – in response to a trigger. In our example, arriving home in the evening is our trigger. The programmed response to this trigger is to reach into the fridge. The more often we reach for the chocolate, the more deeply ingrained our behaviour becomes.

The brain goes along with this, because chocolate promises a quick reward. In contrast, doing sport is tiring, and the expected benefits (in terms of physical and emotional well-being) usually lie in the future. This isn’t good news for chocolate lovers who want to lose weight.

One in ten people succeed!
This is why very few people succeed in following through with their New Year's resolutions. Studies show that a year later, only around one in ten people are still sticking to their resolutions.

But wait a minute! One in ten people managed it. How? The good news is that there’s an ingenious solution. “If you want to change a habit, you first have to redefine it,” says Hausmann. This is how it works: “Connect a new behaviour – e.g. exercising – to the existing trigger and a specific situation,” recommends Hausmann. In other words, replace the action of reaching for chocolate with reaching for trainers when you get home in the evening. Continue until this has become a new habit. The more regularly you do sport or put your resolution into action, the less effort it will take.

This has little to do with an iron will or self-discipline and more to do with your motivation: “Focus on your real wishes and goals.” Hausmann believes it’s also important for you to enjoy the new habit. It should trigger positive feelings – like chocolate used to.


Dr Daniel Hausmann-Thürig is an FSP (Federation of Swiss Psychologists) accredited psychologist. He works in the Applied Social and Health Psychology team at the Department of Psychology at the University of Zurich and is head of research into applied decision-making, with a focus on medical and health psychology.


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