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Don’t give up on your resolutions How learning from habits can help you reach your goals

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Even though starting a new year with a renewed sense of direction can be refreshing, a dispirited little voice ends up convincing me that my attempts at turning my life around will end in bitter disappointment.

From this comes my love-hate relationship with New Year’s resolutions. I even marked the beginning of this year with a picture of Dr. Evil making air quotes around ‘new year, new me’ hastily pasted over a printout of my class schedule.

It wasn’t until I started learning about habit formation that I realized my approach to resolutions was all wrong. I wanted to create big change in my life, yet I had no tangible idea of what I wanted to change nor the motivation.

Charles Duhigg, author of the New York Times Bestseller The Power of Habit, breaks down habit formation into a cycle of three steps: a cue, routine and reward. But if habit formation was that easy, then you’ll still find the Pulse packed after January.

Human nature is complex and researchers are still trying to unpack exactly how habits are formed, but according to Prof. Ayesha Khan from McMaster’s Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, Duhigg’s cycle is a good place to start.

“It’s important to develop a good habit. I think sometimes we go through life aimlessly not knowing the strategies that help us be our best selves. … What I think it ultimately comes down to is having some sort of system or some sort of strategy to be able to implement the things that actually help you be successful,” explained Khan.

The recipe for forming habits is not clear-cut but it has some essential ingredients, such as starting small, defining a time and place that makes the activity itself convenient to practice, and most importantly, finding a pleasure component that drives you.

These strategies can be applied to all of your resolutions, whether it is making a habit out of flossing, preparing for a marathon, regularly meal prepping, or in my case, learning a new skill.

“Not only should it be positive, but also something that brings this element of excitement and fun, and I think you’re more likely to stick to it. But you also have to sit down, reflect and be creative,” said Khan.

Feeling that my creativity has been hindered lately, I decided to give myself two weeks to implement a cue, routine and reward in order to pick up sewing. I set aside one hour every morning to learn all about the skill and practice with an end goal of making a t-shirt from scratch.

“If something feels good, you are more likely to repeat it,” Khan explained. “The trick I think is to figure out what is the pleasure element of it that will help you go back on a regular basis. In the case of [learning to] make a t-shirt, maybe the gratification that you feel after you make the t-shirt is [the reward].”

Your dentist complimenting your freshly flossed teeth, the endorphins that kick in while training for a marathon and the satisfaction of having saved a little bit of money by making your own meals can all be motivating factors that reinforce habit formation.

Each person has to find the right reward that will work well for them, but sometimes it isn’t as easy to find pleasure in a task. Khan decided to practice mindfulness meditation last year after reading studies on how it can lead to fundamental changes in the brain, but she had a difficult time defining the pleasure component.

“Most people use breath as an anchor for paying attention. … You’re able to have a little bit more clarity of the thoughts [and feelings] that you are having. … I was really intrigued by this idea and who doesn’t want to have a better system to maintain their attention,” said Khan.

“Initially I wasn’t able to figure out a reward, until I found an app. This app would show me the number of mindfulness minutes that I had on a regular basis. I’m not a competitive person but I do like to see progress.”

Khan was captivated by seeing her mindfulness minutes grow. She wanted to see the numbers rise, so she continued to meditate, until it eventually became a habit. The reward led her to practice day after day. In fact, in the past two months, she’s garnered over 1,300 minutes.

As for myself, the concept of learning to make something that I can wear was my reward. It made me eager to watch online tutorials during my one hour sessions and I was overcome with excitement during my tour of Fabricland as Tracy, the sales associate, took me from rack to rack teaching me about different materials.

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Perhaps I got ahead of myself while getting lost in the beautiful prints on cotton, rayon and polyester because as soon as it came to actually making the t-shirt, the experience was nothing short of a disaster.

I dedicated a great deal of time making templates of my t-shirt on paper, only to realize that eyeballing a few of my measurements would lead to disproportional sleeves. Cutting is also not my forte as exemplified by the unintentional v-neck.   

I was still hopeful as I pieced everything together in Needlework, a fabric shop and creative workspace on James Street North — that is, until it was time to add the sleeves.

Somehow I managed to sew them on with extra material peeking out all around the armhole. My co-worker suggested they looked like ruffles as I stood over my floral mess, contemplating whether I should laugh or cry. I laughed and started all over again.

“You have to appreciate that habit formation is super complex and there’s no one formula that you just have to do. This also means that you’re a little compassionate towards yourself when you’re not able to form a habit. You have to re-strategize or you say, ‘I’m going to begin again,’” advised Khan.

Understanding how habit formation works brings me one step closer to setting and successfully reaching goals and resolutions. Even though the t-shirt would’ve been better off as a misshapen tank top, I learned from my experiences, and I’m proud of myself for setting a goal and seeing it through.

Here’s to more t-shirts in the future!

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Author: Razan Samara

Razan Samara is in her third year of life science studies (probably for life). You can find her hitting the books and working at the hospital to complete her mental health minor, but most of the time she’s in the Sil’s dungeon office managing the Arts & Culture section as editor. She’s fond of Hamilton’s many galleries, enjoys meaningful talks with chefs at the Farmer’s Market and uses writing to connect with the world around her.