I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions. Did you?
I’m pretty good at making resolutions. I make them all the time – monthly, weekly, daily. Sometimes even hourly. When I’m making dinner, I resolve not to eat any chocolate afterwards, but the moment Netflix comes on I find I’ve gobbled down half a bar of Top Deck without even registering it. I wake up in the morning and resolve to go for a run in the evening, but when the time comes I opt for a glass of wine instead. I resolve to meditate every day in the upcoming week, but entirely forget until the following Sunday comes around and I find myself lying in bed feeling stressed about the meaning of life. Yes, I’m excellent at making resolutions, but entirely rubbish at keeping them. So, it’s strange I forgot to make some 2022 ones to throw on the ever-growing heap of failed resolutions festering in my mental inbox.
Sometimes it feels like there are two “me”s living inside my mind. The me that is excellent at goal setting, planning, and dreaming about the future. A me that feels disciplined and directed and in control. The real me. And another me, a more subconscious “me” that is excellent at doing whatever the hell she feels like. A me with little impulse control, at the mercy of mood and emotion. This latter me drives a lot, it would seem. Yelling at the stupid antics of speeding motorists from the safe confines of her air-conditioned Hyundai on her way to buy chocolate instead of fruit during the grocery shopping.
Of course, there is only one me and it is neither of these identities individually. My sense of self, at any one point in time, is the output of the many processes my brain in my body generate, based on incoming stimuli and all sorts of pre-programmed algorithms running in the squishy stuff inside my skull. As is yours. Even though I feel like I have a stable sense of self, I change moment to moment, day to day depending on what’s going on around me and what has my attention in any one moment. Emotions, hormones, dinner, what I just read on Facebook, how much wine I drank, and the task at hand.
So much of our behaviour is habitual – automatic. We might as well think of ourselves as the sum of our habits. The brain is an associative network. Things that occur together are wired together at a neural level, and when these events occur together frequently any one of them will activate the others. The reason I eat chocolate every night is because it is a well established routine. As a result I’ve built up an association between delicious, creamy yumminess and the television. When the TV goes on, the part of my brain that says “ooh, chocolate” is also activated. And then it becomes very hard to resist, because the resulting behaviour is automated. I don’t decide to walk to the chocolate cupboard, I just find myself there. In the parlance of Jonathan Haidt, the rider isn’t making the choices, the elephant is. Maybe that’s all a habit is. Activities or thoughts that are wired together in the brain so that they create behaviours that don’t need our voluntary input anymore.
Making resolutions is an act of consciousness. But a lot of what we do happens without the mind’s input. Resolutions then are bound to be a waste of time on their own. Statements of intent, without any power to make actual changes. To make changes, we need to be mindful of the fact that there are automated processes at hand that will sabotage our good intentions. Our habits are ingrained – but they are open to change. It just takes a lot of cognitive effort, attention and time – all of which are pretty limited resources.
A psychology professor of mine likened creating new habits to trying to create a new path through thick bushland. The usual path is well beaten in. It is clear and easy to follow because it’s been walked on hundreds of times before. It requires no conscious effort on the part of the walker. But if you want to walk in a new direction, you have to form a new path, a path you have to create from scratch by hacking through the undergrowth. And then you have to keep walking along that new pathway, over and over again, until it becomes established – the undergrowth flattened, the way clear and easy. It takes time, and effort. But, and this is the hard bit, you also have to stop walking down the well-known path, because every time you do, you reinforce that pathway again, undoing all your hard work.
There are things I want to change about the way I do life. New habits I want to replace the mentally and physically unhealthy one that have a hold on me. Mindless eating being one of them. A more disciplined, less doubt-ridden commitment to following my dreams being another. I want to meditate more and fret less. Spend less time on social media and more on in-the-moment concentration. Less photo sharing, more being-present experiencing. I want to get back to running and explore more on my bike, be more organised and have a cleaner house. I want to decide whether to do a masters in brain science or philosophy of the mind, and be happy with the decision I make, to be kinder to myself and others, and not let the unthought through opinions of the not-very-smart invade my peace of mind.
Trying to change more than one thing at a time is an exercise in futility. To change a habit requires attention, and there is a cap on the amount of attention our brains have available at any one point in time, as I keep saying. But what to focus on? I think half my problem is I have too many tabs open in my mind already. Maybe right now, on holiday, I’ll just resolve to be more aware. To remember that habits are associations running their own game below the surface of my mind. Perhaps if I can form the habit of mindfulness – if I can cultivate awareness of my actions and impulses – everything else will no doubt resolve itself.
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