As a family physician, one of my main jobs is trying to help patients change their unhealthy habits. Advice such as lose weight, exercise more, get more sleep, quit smoking, or drink less alcohol all require a change in daily habits. Smoking cessation statistics show just how hard it is to change our habits. Ninety-three percent of people will fail the first time they try to quit smoking. But, don’t give up after that first failure because the statistics do improve with each successive attempt. Personally, I want to exercise more and learn Spanish. Now that I work less clinic hours, it should be easy, right? Wrong. So, is the correct philosophy the age old adage of “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” Or, is it Yoda’s ” Do. Or do not. There is no try.” ?
I love this quote “Plasticity in the wide sense of the word, means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” I read it and immediately think of breaking a horse and yet it is so very applicable to the breaking of a habit. In many ways, human nature isn’t all that different from 130 years ago because that quote is attributed to William James, the father of American psychology. To change a habit, he advises, “Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way. Make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.” He adds, “No matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. If we flinch from making an effort, before we know it the effort-making capacity will be gone.“
His words echo my sentiment for patients that desire weight loss. It matters not the path you choose, just choose a path and start. When that path fails to be of further assistance, choose another. So, as the Nike slogan says, “Just Do It.”
We now understand that newly developing habits form in the decision centers of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. But, when a habit is solidly ingrained, it moves to the basal ganglia, where it requires almost no thought. There is no exact formula for getting the habit into the basal ganglia, but repetition / repetition / repetition is the key.
So, in closing, I will put on my tennis shoes, walk my dog, and listen to my Pimsleur Spanish course. Furthermore, I will make every effort to do this every day until it becomes a routine part of each day. I’m going to take Yoda’s advice and Do.