Bad habits can ruin your life. Whether you're gorging on Haagen-Dazs or dressing up like a Power Ranger and flaying hobos every night, you know on some level that things have to change, or disaster will follow. But no matter how badly you want your life to be different, things just keep plowing on the way they are. Why?
Because your brain has a long list of diabolical mechanisms intended to keep your habits exactly as they are.
You knew you had to be up at 7 a.m. for a big exam. But there you were, at one in the morning, watching every minute of a double feature on cable including Timecop and a second showing of Timecop. On a conscious level, you knew you were screwing yourself. But on a subconscious level, you always think of the tomorrow version of you as a completely different person. That guy can deal with the consequences; the night version is watching some fucking Jean-Claude Van Damme.
"Can't miss the rest of this movie. Two hours of sleep will be fine."
Well, don't feel so bad. Science says that this feature is built into your brain.
Brain scans have shown that different parts of our brain light up when we're thinking of ourselves versus when we're thinking of other people. That part makes sense -- your brain is partitioned out into separate regions for yourself and for everyone else because you have to look out for yourself first. But where it gets weird is that in some people, when they're asked to think about their future selves, the region that lights up is the one reserved for other people.
"Future Bill can worry about AIDS tests. Now Bill has unprotected sex to attend to."
In other words, if someone asks you to think about what you'll look like in 20 years, your brain treats it as though you're trying to picture some bizarre stranger. Now think about what that means in terms of your ability to fix what's wrong in your life. What motivation do you have to abstain from your 14th peanut butter doughnut today just to help out some droopy manimal in the future? Logically, you understand that you're endangering the person you'll become, but subconsciously, your brain doesn't have the sympathy to spare for that poor slob, and just wants to enjoy the doughnut.
Let's say you have a habit or two you need to break, and you decide to start by picking up some good habits, because as we all know, the surefire way to overcome an addiction is to replace it with another addiction. So, you waddle over to the local gym, sign up for a membership and plan to start working out three times a week to help control your cravings for pie or cocaine or cocaine pie.
So, how much uninterrupted effort would you say it takes to start to become a gym person? As in, how long until you begin to accept working out as an automatic part of your life, rather than a grievous tax on your muscles and time?
Well, according to one study, habits take 66 days to form. That's right; it takes the better part of 10 weeks before any sort of new behavior you're trying to adopt starts to feel automatic. That means you're looking at over two months before that treadmill at the gym becomes more "weekly routine" and less "Spanish Inquisition."
And that's more than two months during which any kind of change in your routine can disrupt the process. You have a week when you can't work out because you get the flu, or pull a muscle, or have to work a bunch of overtime at the slaughterhouse. Boom, habit broken. This is when you snap back into your old habits, because they, too, were formed by long stretches of repetition. Your nightly date with Jack Daniel's and Facebook is firmly etched into your brain thanks to years of practice.
It's not because your brain hates you; it's because your brain likes efficiency, and mindless habits are efficient. See, what your brain really wants is to shift into autopilot, to turn your life into repetitive patterns and create heuristics -- mental shortcuts that help you get through the day using the least amount of brain power necessary. Heuristics allow you to drive to work half asleep and hung over, and get there with no recollection of the trip you just made. They compel you to repeat the same little things over and over day after day, because these routines require way less energy.
"I've got, like, the Prius of brains."
But breaking out of one requires an enormous amount of energy. If you want to change your routine, your previously automatic, effortless choices now have to be made using a conscious, concerted effort. And it will be exhausting. We don't just mean physical effort -- obviously riding a bike to work is more tiring than hiring a rickshaw. We mean just making the decisions is tiring. Which brings us to the fact that ...
Of course, what is probably more likely to trip you up during your 10 weeks of learning to be the type of person who jogs every morning isn't some uncontrollable circumstance, but your own lack of motivation. Specifically, this shows up as the sense that, because you've been so good with the jogging, you owe it to yourself to take a break.
"Three miles! Time for smoking and cakes."
Once again, scientists can get this same result in the lab -- exercising your willpower in one instance simply makes it more difficult to exercise it in the next. There's even a term for it now: willpower depletion. It is every bit as depressing as it sounds.
For instance, in one study, scientists asked one group of students to memorize a two-digit number, and another group a seven-digit number. They then offered both groups a choice between cake and fruit salad. Amazingly, the students who memorized the longer number were twice as likely to choose the cake. It's as though the simple act of remembering five extra digits was enough to reduce their willpower to a trembling white flag.
"Five weeks sober. Then I memorized all the lyrics to American Pie."
Then you have this study, which tried it from the opposite direction: Volunteers were shown a plate of freshly baked cookies and a plate of radishes. Half of them were instructed to take a cookie, and the other half were instructed to take a radish. All were then asked to complete a difficult geometric puzzle. Bizarrely, those who had been told to take a radish gave up on the puzzle after only eight minutes, while those who were told to take a cookie stuck with it for a full 19 minutes.
Even though no physical effort was involved, simply being forced to resist cookies actually depleted the volunteers' will to solve a puzzle, because apparently we never really stop being toddlers.
"I can hold in my homicidal urges or do Weight Watchers. Not both."
This one has another way of sneaking up on you, too, because ...