PODCAST: The Psychology of Habits & Why New Year's Resolutions Are So Hard to KeepJan. 3, 2023
Forming good habits is tough. Breaking bad ones can be even harder. But why? There's perhaps no better time to explore this question than at the start of the new year, when many of us are resolving to make healthy changes in our lives. In today's episode, we discuss the psychology of habits and get tips for sticking to our New Year's resolutions and other goals we set for ourselves.
Hosts: Zach Moore, Katie McCallum (interviewer)
Expert: Dr. William Orme, Psychologist
Notable topics covered:
- What happens in your brain while making and breaking habits
- Why will power and guilt aren't enough to sustain lasting behavior change
- Habit reinforcers, including whether change becomes easier when tied to the new year
- Why smart goal setting and consistency are critical for habit formation
- How long does it take for a behavior to become a habit?
- The importance of giving yourself "emotional credit" when forming habits
- How many New Year's resolutions are too many?
- Dr. Orme's habit hacks that can help you stick with your resolutions beyond January
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ZACH: Welcome to On Health with Houston Methodist. I'm Zach Moore. I'm a photographer and editor here, and I've worked in multimedia and television for over 15 years – and I'm also a longtime podcaster.
KATIE: I'm Katie McCallum. I'm a former researcher turned health writer, mostly writing for our blog.
ZACH: Happy New Year, Katie.
KATIE: Happy New Year, Zach! Did you make any New Year's resolutions?
Zach: You know, I did not this year.
KATIE: No. No resolutions?
ZACH: Nor do I usually ever.
KATIE: I was about to ask, not this year, but perhaps in the past. So, no, not a resolutions guy?
Zach: You know, I don't know if I had like a bad experience in the past about a resolution or not. I really can't remember. I just have not really ever been one to say, “Oh, what's my top 10 things I'm gonna try to achieve in the new year?” Now, I like making lists and goals and, you know, there's always a sense of accomplishment, even like a to-do list, right? It's like, “Oh, what am I gonna get done this weekend?” You check 'em off the list and you, you get a sense of accomplishment. I've always, you know, I never -- I understand that you're never like, gonna accomplish all of them.
ZACH: So, it's like, okay, as long as I got like, you know, six or seven out of my 10, then I feel like, “Okay, that -- that's a good percentage. I could be proud of that, right?”
ZACH: But for New Year's resolutions, they always seem to be these big life changing things and they're kinda intimidating, you know?
KATIE: Yeah. That's how I have treated them in the past, and I'll make ‘em on and off whether I like, confirm that I'm making one out loud, or I just like keep it at the back of my mind, “Of hey, the new year's starting.” I'm reevaluating my life, essentially looking at the past. What do I not like about myself? What do I like about myself? For myself, I definitely have failed in the past. I do still keep making them here and there. There's something I like about them, but I am horrible at keeping them. So, that's where my -- that's where my problem is.
ZACH: Well, well how early do you decide what's gonna be your resolution for the next year?
KATIE: Ooh, that's a really good question.
ZACH: Is it like December 31st? Did…
KATIE: Yeah. No, that's…
ZACH: 10:00 P.M. Better make that list or…
KATIE: That's a really good question. I don't know, maybe, maybe like, around the holiday time when you have that little bit of break, like work is finally slowing down right before the holidays and you have time to actually reevaluate your life. You're not so busy that you can't even think about what you've done in the last year. I would say maybe around that time, but I don't know. That question is probably making me realize why I'm so bad at keeping them is because I'm probably not thinking about them enough.
ZACH: Because obviously it's something that you're aware of before then.
ZACH: So, it's not a magical thing that happens on December 31st to January 1st.
ZACH: But we always look for that catalyst to have a new beginning and you're like, “Oh, what’s the new month or the new week.” And the new year is the biggest one, of all really, of turning the page and getting a fresh start. And then the -- I understand the logic in that of why people are like, “Okay, well, here's what I'm gonna do next year.” But then you think to yourself, “Well, you could have started in like October if you really wanted to.” Which is some of what we're gonna be talking about today.
KATIE: Yeah. You know, it's interesting that you put it in that context too, because I am realizing, you know, I'm someone who has made New Year's resolutions in the past. I'm realizing I do it week by week too, actually, now that I think about it. If I'm like on a bad path mid-week, I'll still wait till Monday to make my change. So, there might be something too, just some people are more amenable to like, “I need a start date kinda thing.” And the new week, the new year, it all feels right. This is a topic I am generally interested in, and I think other people, I hope other people are too. And I'm really excited ‘cause today I'm gonna pick Dr. William Orme’s brain about New Year's resolutions, making habits, breaking habits, everything in between. He's one of our clinical psychologists here at Houston Methodist. So, I think he's gonna have a ton of expertise on the topic for us to sort of tap into as we try to make these New Year's resolutions that we've all just formed into a reality.
ZACH: Yeah, because resolutions, what they come down to is you changing your behavior and then changing your life, really. And what that really comes down to is habits.
KATIE: Yeah. He's gonna talk us through the psychology of habits, why bad ones are hard to break, why good ones are hard to make, what it takes to make a habit. It's a really interesting conversation.
[Sound effect signals a brief interjection in the interview]
KATIE: As far as I'm concerned. I feel like as a society we've kind of bought into this idea of New Year's resolutions. From the standpoint of the new year is coming, we wanna make self-improvements. It seems like a time where we should maybe reevaluate our habits, our behaviors, and make some changes if they're needed. But then I think a lot of us are skeptical about the idea itself of New Year's resolutions because they're just really hard to keep. I find it so interesting, and I have a hard time wrapping my brain around this idea where, you know, we're resolving or we know we need to change something, so that's not the problem. We have like a decent idea of how we're gonna change it, so that's not the problem. But then taking this kind of intention, and then translating that into action seems incredibly hard. Why is it so hard for us to do that?
DR. ORME: Yeah. It probably doesn't help that most of us have made dozens of New Year's resolutions that have not really panned out. So, there's a -- probably already an expectation there that this isn't going to get anywhere. Even with that though, I mean, I think it is a time in the year that makes sense to sort of reflect on the past, and to think about the year coming forward. And in my view, it turns out that like, setting goals and developing habits is not as easy as it looks on the surface. I mean, it's, “Oh yeah, not a big deal, like, I'll just make this one small change.” But, you know, my view is that by the time any of us start thinking about developing new habits, like we already have a whole behavioral repertoire of habits. And some of those are helpful, and some of them are not. And some of them are gonna get in the way of whatever new habits that we're trying to form.
KATIE: Yeah, and I think with New Year's resolutions, a lot of times we're trying to break a bad habit. Whether that's, you know, snacking too much before bedtime, eating junk food, watching TV too late, all these sorts of things we can get caught up in. And you kind of alluded to this, I think of a habit as just the simple subconscious thing that I do. It doesn't really feel like a choice, almost that I'm making, but they're -- are they more complex than that? And how are our thoughts and feelings playing into our habits, and then maybe keeping us from making a change when we have a bad one?
DR. ORME: Yeah, I mean, I think a habit by definition is something that has become sort of automatic. Our minds do this for a reason. I mean, when something becomes like an automatic conditioned behavior, it takes up less sort of psychological real estate. You know, you can use more bandwidth on other things and that's a really important -- and time saving efficiency thing that our mind does. And so, once something actually becomes automatic, it doesn't really take much thought. I don't think about brushing my teeth at night. It's just like, this is nighttime, this is what I'm doing, you know?
DR. ORME: There's no like, struggle here. There's no -- but for a behavior to become ingrained into a habit, to become grooved into it, like that, there's probably like a history to that. That maybe in the past involved more struggle, more emotion, to actually get it to the place where it's -- where it's automatic. So, if you want to develop a new habit and make it automatic, it's not like you can just be like, “Oh, I'm going to start reading every – a chapter every night. I mean, you can have that intention, but it -- there has to be sort of a struggle, or a thoughtful way that that's gonna be implemented to make that more of a behavioral automatic conditioned response that's gonna happen every night before you go to bed.
KATIE: So, what is it that makes a bad habit so hard to break? You know, like let's say every night, like, I know I need to not let Netflix take me to another episode, but I -- like, I let myself do it. Like, why is it so hard to just like, tell, let my brain make the right decision for me?
DR. ORME: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think expediency is not our friend. I mean, I think most of us do the easy thing.
DR. ORME: And I think bad habits are easy to form because we do -- there's, you know, you could look at it neurologically, there's a dopamine hit that -- there's a reward system in your brain and it's gonna hit that dopamine circuit and you're gonna get an immediate feedback from that. It's immediate, it's probably pleasurable is the easy thing to do. So, and sometimes when habits get really bad, there's other psychological dynamics probably going on with it that sort of reinforce it even further. But I think the quote unquote good habits and, you know, whatever we mean by that is -- it's harder to develop those because it takes a bit more delay in gratification, sacrifice, it takes, even the reward that you get from them is a bit -- it's not as sensational as hitting the dopamine circuit from some of these other things. You know?
KATIE: You know, it's funny you bring that up because I -- on the flip side of New Year's resolutions are also making new healthy habits. One of my questions is like, shouldn't positive feedback, like help take me over the finish line here? Like, I'm starting to exercise more. Why does it become so hard to do that? You'd think like, “Oh, I'm gonna hit something that's gonna say like, “Yes, keep doing this, this feels good.” Why is it so hard to make a new habit too?
DR. ORME: Yeah. I think that's one of the dilemmas of developing good habits is that like, oftentimes, the reinforcer is psychologically distant from us at the time when we actually have to make the decision. So, it's like usually working out is -- it's gonna be reinforcing, but usually it's gonna be reinforcing like after you've done the work. Like, you've done with your run and you get some endorphins or, if, really if you are open to it, you could be -- it could be reinforcing on the run. But you, you have to like sort of get in contact with that downstream reinforcer. Whereas like, a bad habit, it's like immediate, you know, you can click the next episode on Netflix and you're into it. So, when therapists are trying to help people develop new habits, a lot of times the therapist is gonna try and bring sort of the downstream effects of a particular choice into the present moment. So that somebody can get in touch with that and draw upon that as a resource. So, you know, like how you want to exercise. So, like how would you feel after the exercise? Yeah. And if you don't exercise, how are you gonna feel? You know, they're trying to bring those closer, so that they can be more real to the person.
KATIE: Yeah, that's a good point too. And I think sometimes where, at least myself, and I would assume other people too, is it a bad thing if you're pulling yourself into the present moment with like guilt? Because again, with exercise, a lot of times what I do is I kind of like almost guilt myself into it.
DR. ORME: Yeah.
KATIE: Am I going wrong there or can that be at a low level a helpful thing, some amount of like guilting myself into exercise till it becomes a habit? Or is that a big no-no.
DR. ORME: That is such a good question. I think for me as a psychologist, I think about that maybe with some complexity to that, because I think that there's like two sort of risks here. One risk is more of like this sense, some psychologists call this like emotional perfectionism. Like, we want to wait till we have the perfect motives to do something and we don't want to have mixed motives. And it's like, okay, good luck, you're gonna wait forever until that happens. ‘Cause none of us are that pure, none of us have that, you know, are free of these mixed emotions. Like, some people want to exercise for all sorts of different reasons. And if we wait till the motivator is this like perfectly kind of balanced, “This is in my best interest in health and taking care of my body,” we might be waiting for a while. But the -- I think the other risk is that any behavior that we take to sort of try and fix an emotional state inside, if we kind of groove that in for too long, that can sort of have a constraining effect on somebody's psychology. So, the concern there is it sort of starts to -- we start to become beholden to the behavior because it's serving this function of helping us get away from something we don't want to feel. “I don't wanna feel guilty for not exercising, so I'm gonna go exercise.” It's like, if we do that too long, it -- we can kind of become inured to it. And then we're not -- we have a little bit less freedom psychologically speaking, but it's also like who doesn't have mixed motives? So, I think there's a place for maybe trying to open up and get connected to sort of a deeper value that we might have in implementing a particular behavior or a habit.
KATIE: Yeah, that makes sense. Kind of on a related vein, or maybe this is not a related vein, but what are some things that, let's say I have this new habit I wanna form or this bad habit I wanna break. What are some things that can get in the way of that, whether societal or personal? Are there any factors people should kind of think about ahead of time then say like, “I'm gonna remove these blockers ‘cause I know they're coming” when it comes to habit forming, or anything we know generally?
DR. ORME: There's probably a lot, and it's probably different for each person. I guess one of the things that I think about as a psychologist is that I think a lot of us, and maybe in our culture we sort of extol this value of fortitude and willpower. Like, “I should just be able to do this by like, gritting -- digging deep and gritting through it and just implementing this thing no matter what.” And people that can do that, more power to them, but a lot of us can't. A lot of us, our willpower is not going to carry us through in the times that we need it to. So, like, if you want to get up to run at five in the morning, it's like the willpower might carry you the first week maybe, but the next week after you've stayed up too late watching Netflix or after you've got up to take care of your kids and now the alarm is going off, the willpower's probably not gonna carry you. And so…
KATIE: Right, yeah.
DR. ORME: So…
KATIE: Certainly, wouldn't carry me.
DR. ORME: Yeah, seriously. So, I think that some humility with that, and kind of acknowledging that actually, helps us understand that we actually have to make some systemic changes in our life to make behavior change, like super easy. So, that we're not always relying on the willpower to get us through. So, calling a friend and going running with a friend, you know, like something like that. These helpers that can be, you know, we as psychologists’ kind of often think about behavior as very contextual. It happens within an environment. External factors and internal factors are at play and coming to operate on that behavior. And we want to, like, take into account the full context of all the potential reinforcers and work with those to like make this the most, you know, likelihood of success that we can have. So…
KATIE: Yeah, that's a -- that's actually a great segue into my next question, because speaking of potential reinforcers, of making changes, is the new year a potential reinforcer, you know, this idea of New Year's resolutions, is there some merit to us doing this at the new year? And saying, “Hey, let's make a behavior change.” Do we know anything about -- that is a good time to actually do this? Does it -- does it -- I guess what I'm asking is does it make our changes more successful if we tie them to the new year at all? Do we know?
DR. ORME: I -- you know, I don't know. That's a good question. My guess, I would guess that I would probably answer that. No. Like, I think new behaviors and habits are hard to implement whenever, but there is maybe something where it is a socially sanctioned time to do it. But you're also battling probably people's social history with this and like, you know what, “I've made a New Year's resolution five times and I make it to January 15 and we're done.” You know, so I think that it's probably a mixed bag of some encouraging reinforcers of like, “Hey, everyone's doing it. My friend's doing it, you're doing it.” Everyone has this energy, but there's also these kinds of gloomy past experiences hanging over that also probably come to bear on it.
KATIE: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You know, for myself at least I think about it every year, even if I make a concrete resolution. I'm kind of hit or miss. I think, like if I had to say, what I wanna be better about this year, I'd probably say, “I wanna stay in touch with my friends and family better.” I've had that resolution a couple years in a row now though, especially during the pandemic, it's become this like, in my mind, I should fix this problem that I have. It's still just really hard to do. So, it sounds like waiting for the new year to have that kind of -- or relying on the new year as sort of momentum to move you forward maybe isn't even that helpful? I should just -- I could -- I could start in April; I could start in October. I should just start, is that kind of your thoughts?
DR. ORME: I think so. I mean, I wouldn't want to put any more barriers in front of that new behavior.
KATIE: Good point.
DR. ORME: And it’s possible. You know, I would want to be like, how could we -- if it is really a value, how could we start on that even in just a small way, you know? It doesn't have to be anything significant. Oftentimes, starting small is the best anyway. But the new year provides like a nice point of reflection and a lot of times that's when people are sort of like pausing. Because maybe a lot of us have busy lives and don't do that regularly. But if we did that regularly, we might see like, “Oh, maybe I wanna make a game time adjustment here, here, here. And I would say like, “We don't have to wait.”
[Music plays to signal a brief interjection in the interview]
ZACH: Between 1995 and 2013, an Emeritus national poll surveyed adults about how likely they were to make a New Year's resolution. Over this almost two-decade period, an average of 40% of people reported being very or somewhat likely to make a resolution each year. And somewhat surprising to us, an average of 60% reported that they'd managed to keep the resolution the year prior for part of the year, at least. At any rate, the majority of respondents consistently approached resolutions with their health in mind. In the last year the poll was performed, 2013, 44% of adults said, “They planned to make a resolution, and when asked what they were resolving to change, almost 60% of respondents had a health-related goal. Ranging from being a better person, to eating healthier, exercising more, losing weight, and stopping smoking.
KATIE: Up after the break, Dr. Orme is gonna give us some habit hacks that we can use to take our resolutions past January.
[Music ends, sound effect signals commercial break, commercial plays]
KATIE: We're back with Dr. Orme.
[sound effect signals return to the interview]
KATIE: If someone was trying to say like, “Hey, I wanna be better, I want to -- I wanna work on self-improvement, are New Year's resolutions something you even recommend to someone?
DR. ORME: Yeah. This – So, it's kind of hard to recommend something that I don't do myself.
KATIE: Okay. Well, I was gonna eventually ask you that, so that's perfect.
DR. ORME: But I would say, I am not against them. Like, I think in general they're a good idea. I think the question is what is the resolution and who is making it? You know, I'm a psychologist, so I'm thinking about a person's psychology and a resolution is probably gonna be a resolution to implement a new habit. And a habit is really just a behavior that is repeated and become ingrained. So, it's more automatic and any behavior, like if you think about it, any behavior on the surface can kind of look good or look bad, you know, but it's -- I, as a psychologist think about like, it kind of matters what is driving the boat on that, you know, it kind of matters what, what's governing that behavior. Because take for example, something like exercising, you know, generally I think if we see somebody out exercising, we probably think, “Oh man, look at them. They’re taking care of their health and wow, good for them.
KATIE: And they've probably got it all figured out.
DR. ORME: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But it kinda matters ‘cause there are some people where exercise is actually something that's done compulsively. It's done out of anxiety, it's that they can't stop exercising because it's driven by maybe fears, or shame, or guilt, or something inside where if they stop it then they, they can't tolerate kind of the experience. So, there's sort of a -- if we kind of encourage that and, and call that a good behavior or a good habit, we might be actually encouraging sort of more a pattern that's kind of making their life smaller and not giving them kind of the flexibility that's, they probably will need.
KATIE: How would someone know if they're either resolution or their behavior, they wanna make -- the behavior change they wanna make, how do you know when it's coming from a place that's not great, I guess? If that's what you're saying.
DR. ORME: Yeah. I guess one of the things that I would say is that, “Again, none of us like have pure motives here. Like, you know, like we probably want to exercise because we want to be healthy, but you know, we probably will go into the gym and start comparing ourselves to other people. “And this body part needs to be bigger or smaller.” You know, so, but I do think there can be a way where we get in touch with what's really important to us in this new habit that I want to lay down. Do I do like, for -- in your example, do I want to stay in touch with friends just so I don't feel bad about this? Or do I wanna stay in touch with friends because like, those relationships mean something to me. And that connection means something to me.
DR. ORME: And I want to be the sort of friend that's there for people when they're struggling or just, you know, who's consistent. That's like a different place that we can kinda access and get in touch with. And there's like psychologically when we're in touch with that place and we're doing a behavior from that place, it has like this enlivening feeling to it. You know, it brings a bit of vitality, it has this sense of like, we respect ourselves more for having done that. Whereas the opposite, it sort of feels like we're just like, ugh, we have to do this, and it's such a grind. It's like such a chore and it has this like kind of constraining feel. I don't really know how to…
KATIE: The power over us or something you said, you know, that is interesting that you, that you mentioned it that way, ‘cause I -- I've had this resolution for a few years. I never get anywhere with it. And I think I'm finally at the point where I think probably when I first made this resolution, it was based in guilt of like, “I'm just being a bad friend, I'm being a bad, you know, niece, daughter,” whatever. Now, I have gotten to the point where like, I really do miss all these relationships that I had and now I have gotten better about it lately, and like I am resolving to continue to be better. And so, I -- it kind of feeds exactly into that point, where I think it took me getting here to probably finally make some real change towards it.
DR. ORME: Yeah. And I think that's a great point because like, I think when you're connected to something, I think maybe more deeper, like, “I missed that friendship, I want that connection.” The behavior becomes like easier. You know, it's like, it’s more likely to be sustained because it’s anchored in something that's a whole lot deeper than just guilt, you know? So, it sort of has this enlivening thing and then that's a reinforcer that then makes it even more easy to do the next time.
KATIE: Another question I have, is a person ever maybe not ready for a change? So, let's say, you know, to your point earlier of New Year's kind of restricts us temporally to making change. Is there ever a time where you'd say to someone, “Look, I know the New Year's here and you wanna make a resolution, but maybe you're just not in a good place to do that.” And I guess I'm asking from a standpoint of can a resolution ever do more harm than good? And that you're kind of setting yourself up for failure, and maybe that hurts your self-esteem? Or is it depend on the goal and is that too -- a simplified way of thinking about it?
DR. ORME: Yeah, I mean, I think I would want to hear what the goal is, and I would wanna be thinking about how this is gonna function in their psychology.
DR. ORME: And I would want to think, “Is this going to help lead to an opening more vitality in their life, or is this going to sort of set them up for this cycle of guilt and shame?” I mean, when it comes to goal setting, if we don't do that kind of in a smart way, it can really set us up for failure if we bite off more than we can chew, or it's, or it's unrealistic, or it's overly kind of like focused on outcomes rather than sort of the process that we're trying to implement here. It can sort of backfire on people. So, yeah, it feels, it feels like one of those things where we have to sort of think a little bit about how we're doing it and how we implement it, and the function that it serves for us.
KATIE: Got it. That's interesting because it kind of brings us to this next place of, you know, we've talked a lot about the psychology of our behaviors and habits and things like that. But for our listeners who are gonna make New Year's resolutions; I'm gonna have some this year actually, which I usually don't, but I I'm going to. Do you have any habit hack tips for us? So, any tips of ways that we can execute properly on our resolutions, so that it's January and I haven't already like shamelessly given up on my resolution?
DR. ORME: Yeah. Well, that's -- I one of the things that a lot of psychologists will talk about when it comes to goal setting is starting off very small. Like, very small. Like, take whatever goal you have and then like, half it and half it again. And that's where probably you should be starting.
DR. ORME: Because what most of us do is, you know, we are ambitious and we set a pretty lofty goal, and then it becomes hard to sustain that. And then that's kind of a setup for failure. So, like, if you wanted to read 50 books in a year, like, I would say let's start with like, can you read consistently, like one page per night?
DR. ORME: And do that consistently for like two weeks and then we'll think about going to two pages. And because the effect of that is again, remember like, willpower is not gonna really sustain us. Like we have to think about how to be smart about this, so this is like the easiest decision to read that page.
KATIE: Right, you could do it in your sleep if you wanted. Yeah.
DR. ORME: Totally. And so, there's like, we're removing these mental barriers to actually implementing behavior. So, I think making it really small and modest. It's not as flashy, like I want it to be flashy, but it's not as flashy, it's more boring and mundane. But like, over time it's – it -- you start racking up these like wins in the win column.
DR. ORME: And the more wins you have in the win column -- it's more about the consistency of the behavior because that's what's actually gonna create the habituation into a habit, so yeah.
KATIE: Speaking of that point, how long about does it take, you know, this racking up the wins in the win column, let's say I'm reading a page a night. When can I kind of feel comfortable and confident that like, “Hey, I've got this new habit.” And like, about do we know like, about how long that takes where we can just hopefully let positive reinforcement take us somewhere?
DR. ORME: Yeah.
KATIE: Does that -- am I oversimplifying again?
DR. ORME: Yeah, I mean I think that -- I've heard like different numbers thrown around. But I think that probably a good way to think about it. And I'm kind of influenced here by James Clear, he's the author of Atomic Habits and he says a lifetime, like you have to do it forever. Like, because…
KATIE: Not the answer we wanted to hear.
DR. ORME: No, I know. It's because like for example, brushing the teeth, like I do it every night.
KATIE: It's true.
DR. ORME: It's automatic. But if you stopped that.
DR. ORME: You know, and if you started making that, “Ahh, every other night.” You know? You would fall out of that habituation. And so, it's something you'll kinda know when you're ready to increase the frequen -- Like, “Okay, I'm gonna go from reading one page a night to two pages a night. I've kind of got this.” It's sort of always something. And that's where it's important to think about the habits that we do put into our lives. Are they sustainable?
DR. ORME: Could we see this going on for like the whole year? For two years? For three years? Five years?
KATIE: That's a good point. Yeah. Yeah, I will say that answer is at first was kind of disconcerting to hear but then I guess, I don't know, I'm a realist and actually I -- now, once I like take a step back and think about it, I can appreciate that it takes a lifetime to, you know, make a habit. That is obviously the realistic answer.
DR. ORME: Yeah.
KATIE: Another kind of logistical question about resolutions and maybe habit forming. How many is too many I guess? And even if they're small, can you have a couple or should you just have one? Is two or three a bad idea? Can you prioritize them, maybe? Like, here's the one I want, but these are bonus. What are your thoughts on like, the number of resolutions?
DR. ORME: Well, actually, it's like the, the number is five.
DR. ORME: No, it's -- there's not -- there isn't a number, but I think less is more.
DR. ORME: I think that picking one that's like most connected to what's important for you, how you wanna show up to this new year is a good idea, and focusing on that. Because again, the more confidence you have about implementing a new habit and getting that process down, then that's gonna generalize to other habits. And I think that just having that in mind that our goal here is not like necessarily a particular outcome. Our goal is like consistency in the behavior itself. That's the most important for thing for habituation.
KATIE: Yeah, and to the consistency point. I'm gonna use exercise as an example just ‘cause it, to me it's an obvious one and hopefully it'll translate to a lot of maybe changes or habits people are making. I guess I get hung up on this thing where I'm very -- I probably have this defeatist attitude when it comes to it sometimes, where like, if I don't feel like working out at all, I'm like, no workout whatsoever. You mentioning consistency is making me feel like, well, should I just literally go for a walk? It's not the exercise I was planning. I'm being too like perfectionist probably about my goals.
DR. ORME: Yeah.
KATIE: So, talk to us about like, or maybe reinforce us that it's okay to not be perfect in your, you know, in your goals when you're working on these resolutions.
DR. ORME: Yeah. I think what you just mentioned is like a kind of a critical skill in the process of habit formation because like, we may set a resolution and there might be a particular goal or outcome associated with that. Like, I want to go to the gym four days a week or whatever. But like, those have to be flexible enough to deal with life because life is gonna happen. And I think it's important to have this skill of being able to fall short of what the expectation was, and yet still show up to do a behavior that's sort of in line with what the value is, what the underlying value is. So, if the value is, “I want to take care of my physical health.” Then that can look like a lot of different things, and you should still get sort of emotional credit for that. Like, it may not be that you went for a five-mile run, but you went for like a walk around the block and that's still a, a behavior that's in line with this deeper value.
KATIE: Yeah. I am kinda blown away by this emotional credit idea. Have never considered this. And I think it might be something I'm missing in my life because I know when I think about my -- these things that I try to do to better my health, they're all very like, physical in my mind. Like, “Oh, you know, if -- I wanna drink less because I don't wanna worry about my health in 15 years. I wanna work out so that I don't have to worry about my health in 15 years.” I've never once thought about to keep it as a habit, emotional credit has to count, right?
DR. ORME: Right.
KATIE: Like, if I don't feel like doing something, I think this point of just doing something that's in line with that.
DR. ORME: Yes.
KATIE: And then I'm reinforcing the -- at least some version of this habit. I think that's so interesting, I've never, I've never thought of that.
DR. ORME: Yeah. We think about it a lot as therapists because like, people are setting goals and there's this trap kinda when you set the goal ‘cause it's like, what if you don't reach it? Well, the thing that we enforce -- like we try and help people with is like, what if it's less about the goal and it's more about sort of how you're showing up in the process of getting to there? Are you doing that with the kind of qualities of behavior that you want to embody? And then it becomes a little bit less important what the outcome was. If you wanna run a marathon, that's a maybe a good goal to have, but can you show up to the process of developing this habit of running with like, maybe consistency, or with this posture of like, really wanting to care for yourself, and your physical body, and your longevity, and that sort of thing. ‘Cause those sorts of behaviors, when they're in line with these kind of deeper -- deeply held values, they can be done regardless of what the outcome is. And you can get credit for it.
DR. ORME: So, it's a reinforcer.
KATIE: I love that.
DR. ORME: Yeah.
KATIE: That's awesome. One last question for you. You know, since we work at a hospital, this is a health podcast. I think a lot of people have the obvious health kind of resolutions down.
DR. ORME: Yeah, yeah.
KATIE: Losing weight, exercising more, stopping smoking if you smoke. I think those are ones people have nailed down. But I think from your standpoint as a psychologist, if you had to -- if someone said to you like, “Look, I wanna improve myself, not sure where to start.” Are there any resolutions, ideas you have that maybe aren't the obvious kind of ones we think of that you'd be like, “Hey, this is an area where I see a lot of people fall short and I would recommend maybe thinking about this?”
DR. ORME: Yeah, I mean I'm gonna -- my go-to is gonna be relationships ‘cause I think they're like, so vital to our overall health. And so, you know, people could think about like, where are you at in your relationships right now? Like, some people are very drawn to other people, and draw their strength and vitality from being around other people. Other people kind of draw their strength by being alone. So, people have different capacities to tolerate closeness and distance from other people. And so, wherever you're at on that, if you kind of like being alone and it's kind of draining to be around other people. It might be that actually kind of a path toward a bit more balance is to lean into that, you know? In whatever direction, like, some people that are around other people all the time, sometimes they struggle to be alone and have time for solitude. But we know that kinda being connected in a community with people is really important. So, us introverts over here have to sort of lean into that. But we also know that time for like solitude is important too. And getting connected with ourselves and developing practices in solitude is really helpful. ‘Cause it kind of -- those are psychologically enriching and they -- it make -- gives us flexibility to where we don't always have to be around somebody. So, wherever you're at on that, you might think like, should I lean into developing a bit more closeness in my relationships, or should I lean into spending a bit more time with myself? And seeing how I can nurture that.
KATIE: We didn't plan this, but it's kind of come full circle for me, because my, you know, my resolution is, is to kind of reconnect with a lot of these people. I am a huge introvert. It's was very -- it's very easy for me to just fall out of touch. And like, I'm kind of outta sight outta mind with friends. Unfortunately, I'm getting older, a lot of my friends are moving away, starting families. It's a lot harder to stay in touch.
DR. ORME: Throw a pandemic in there and, yeah.
KATIEL: Throw a pandemic in there, you know. It is, yeah. It's nice to hear, I would say. I definitely know that I have found how important relationships are. You know, I -- I've -- I spend a lot of time on myself, and my health, and things like that. And I really have identified the one thing missing is like I'm, I probably am not spending as much time with my friends as I would like. And it's getting hard, you know, my family's getting smaller, it's getting harder to like, feel like I'm doing a good job there. So, that's great advice, thank you. It's come full circle for me.
DR. ORME: Yeah. Yeah. I think a lot of people are in that, that similar boat. Especially after kind of the effects of the pandemic, and how isolated people feel. I mean, I think even people that used to be -- love being around other people are just out of practice.
DR. ORME: Again, the habituation thing, kind of have gotten these habits of being on our own, kind of in our own silos. So, I -- probably a lot of people are gonna be in that same place.
KATIE: Okay. Well, I'm glad I'm not alone.
DR. ORME: Yeah
KATIE: All right. Well, thanks so much Dr. Orme. We really appreciate you joining us today.
DR. ORME: Yeah, it was great being on the show.
[Sound effect signals a brief interjection in the interview]
KATIE: So, Zach, after hearing Dr. Orme talk about New Year's resolutions, and habits, do you think maybe you'll make a resolution next year or a late resolution this year?
ZACH: Yeah, it's funny that he didn't mention that you don't have to wait till the new year. Like, why is -- why wait? Why not start now? Yeah, there's some things that I've been wanting to change that I could probably not wait until January 1st for. Or maybe I should, you know, I -- just to make that clear delineation. Because I also really like what he was mentioning, like whatever goal you set, cut that in half.
ZACH: And then cut it in half again. And that, not in the exact same way, but like that makes you feel good about like, my to-do lists, right? Like, I said, I make like 10 things and if I get six or seven of 'em done, I still feel accomplished. Like, you mentioned being like perfectionist, it's like, “Oh, I didn't get all 10 done, I'm a failure.” But, you know, you gotta change your mindset. And I think that's a lot about -- and I think that's one of the most important lessons I learned in y'all's conversation, was yeah, changing kind of your mindset, your approach to these things is really gonna help you succeed in the long run.
KATIE: Yeah. It's definitely the thing I took away most is the same exact thing of where I think I have been a little too focused on the outcome rather than the process of changing the habit or making the new habit. To the point where I've become a perfectionist about it. And like, we talked about, if I don't meet my exact goal that I set out to achieve, it doesn't count. And I just can -- I should just give up and move on. When in reality, that's kind of the worst thing to be doing, ‘cause habits take time to form. He mentioned consistency a ton. And even if consistency is that emotional credit he mentioned, which I loved. And it's just, “Okay, yeah, my goal is to work out three times a week. Well, this week I only worked out twice, but I walked on the third day.” That's of the value add towards the goal you had. And it's going to be the reinforcer. I don't know, I realized I've been looking at habit formation, and then by default of that, also resolution's, totally wrong. And so, it felt like a therapy session for me to like, get myself and my act together.
ZACH: Well, it does help you understand like, “Why am I failing at these things that I want in my life?”
ZACH: Like, I want to do this, but like even he said like, your will only take you so far, right?
ZACH: The processes there are so important. This is all really good psychology, and very insightful and, kind of, you know, just encouraging and reassuring. Like, “Hey, look, we're all, we all have things that we're trying to achieve, habits we're trying to make, habits we're trying to break.” And it takes time, it takes, you know, a very levelheaded approach and just stay at it.
KATIE: Yeah. And goal setting, I, again, that was something that I hadn't -- I'd never tied goal setting to resolutions. It seems like it should be an obvious tie together. I hadn't done it. It was like, “Oh, here's this thing I wanna do, I'm gonna do it.” But I think his point of like, no, you have to be, have really clear goals and they need to be measurable and tiny. Half it and then half it again.
ZACH: Well, it's tangible stuff. It's like, I wanna lose weight. What does that mean?
ZACH: Like, well, I don't know, it wanna lose like 40 pounds, right?
KATIE: Pick some random arbitrary number that means nothing, yeah.
ZACH: Well, then you need to do like one a week, one pound a week. Because where you see the progress, right. The progress markers will give you the encouragement you need so that those small tangible goals, like you discussed are gonna keep you going.
ZACH: So, you can see, you can turn around and like, “You know what? I have made progress.”
KATIE: Yeah. Yeah. I love this conversation. I hope our listeners did too. I know I learned a lot, and I feel more confident. You know, we're a couple days into 2023 and I still am keeping up with my resolution, but I think I'll be able to certainly make it past January this time. I hope our listeners are getting as much outta this conversation too.
ZACH: Yeah, and if you feel bad about missing your New Year's resolutions this year, it's not too late. You don't have to wait another 11 and a half months.
KATIE: It's true. We heard that too. Yeah, and they don't have to start on January 1 or they don't count.
ZACH: Alright, that's gonna do it for us this time. And be sure to share, like, and subscribe On Health with Houston Methodist wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this conversation, for more topics like this, visit our blog at houstonmethodist.org/blog. Stay tuned and stay healthy.
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