Jacob Niblett

Have trouble sticking to your NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS each year? A new book can help you understand the why behind habits and teach you how to successfully make — or break — them.

PSYCHOLOGIST JEREMY DEAN created PsyBlog, a website where he analyzes study results and suggests real-world applications. In his new book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick (Da Capo Press, $26), he applies that approach to studies about motivation, suggesting methods for ingraining habits that range from drinking a glass of water every day to what he calls “the two big ones” — ­eating right and exercising. Dean explains that we spend as much as 50 ­percent of each day unconsciously performing habits. Here’s how to break the cycle and, for once, keep those resolutions.

AMERICAN WAY: What advice do you have for people trying to keep their New Year’s resolutions?
JEREMY DEAN: The age-old advice is to pick something small and doable. Here’s something that sounds easier but is actually harder: Try to spot one of your hidden bad habits. You don’t have to resolve to do anything about it — just try to notice something you do every day that you don’t like. It could be a turn of phrase or a way of thinking about someone. These sorts of apparently small self-observations can take you to interesting places.

AW: A lot of studies indicate that we do better at knowing ourselves when we don’t try. Should we all just relax?
JD: Yes, being both accepting and compassionate toward yourself are great strategies in general. While making and breaking habits takes commitment and self-control, it also requires an accept­ance of the force of habit. It’s worth reminding ourselves that personal change is really hard.

“While making and breaking habits takes commitment and self-control, it also requires an acceptance of the force of habit.”
AW: Is there something specific you would recommend for kicking electronic habits?
JD: Sometimes postponing online habits like checking email, Twitter or Facebook to a specific time can work wonders. If you feel the urge building, then say to yourself, I’ll do that after supper or at some other designated time. Also, try removing the links in your Internet favorites to make it just that little bit harder to perform the habit. It’s easy for the icon to unconsciously cue the habit, so get it out of sight.

AW: So often we’re taught that creativity is the opposite of habit. What’s the relationship between the two?
JD: Bad habits can be the enemy of creativity just as they can be the enemy of a healthy lifestyle or a successful career. But good creative habits — that is, routine ways of approaching problems — have huge potential for generating ­insights. Here’s a neat exercise based on the science of creativity: Think about a problem — let’s say you’re choosing a weekend activity — and then imagine it from the perspective of 10 years from now. The research suggests that mentally distancing yourself like this cues up a more free-form, abstract frame of mind. This helps you come up with ideas you wouldn’t ordinarily consider.

AW: What are your own resolutions for 2013?
JD: I’d love to tell you I’m a master of my own habits, but of course I struggle with them from time to time, just like everyone else. Oddly enough, I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions because the implication is you should change one big thing about yourself each year. On the contrary, the research suggests it’s much better to change small things more frequently.

Go to www.spring.org.uk to read Jeremy Dean’s PsyBlog.