MONTPELIER, Vt. — A University of Vermont psychology professor who has spent a lifetime studying the way people make — and change — ingrained habits has tips for people seeking to keep New Year's resolutions: Don't worry if you backslide, and practice makes perfect.
People seeking to quit smoking, lose weight, eat better or exercise more are often confronted by their old habits without finding ways to implement the new ones. They frequently beat themselves up when they fall short.
"The basic message is: Old habits never really die, they're never erased, they never go away, they can happen again," said professor Mark Bouton, who has spent years doing research in the field.
He suggests that people who want to change just keep at it.
"Don't let yourself get too discouraged," he said. "If old habits lapse, keep working on them."
Bouton's research was not pegged to New Year's resolutions, but the lessons he has learned can be helpful for people vowing to end old habits and starting the new year with a clean slate.
The study of habits — both breaking old ones or establishing new ones — is critical to scientists as well as to the general public who need or want to get over a dependency on alcohol or drugs or embark on a new life of healthier eating.
Popular New Year's resolutions for Americans include drinking less alcohol, quitting smoking, losing weight and managing one's money better, according to USA.gov.
The key to changing habits is to recognize the contexts in which those bad habits express themselves, such as what makes someone pick up a cigarette or having that extra dessert, and then consciously working to get away from that, Bouton said.
"If you tend to eat a lot at meetings or work, practice doing something else in the same context," Bouton said. "Smoking is the same thing. If there's a place that you smoke, during or after, like a meal or getting in your car, be aware of those contextual clues and try to practice the new behavior in places where the relapse is going to be a problem."
And people shouldn't expect perfection at the outset.
"If you go back and smoke a cigarette, smoke the cigarette, but don't smoke the whole pack," he said.
Cut back on how much you smoke at once, or how many cookies you eat because changing that context can help break the habit of binging, he said.
To change, people need to recognize what causes lapses and find ways to avoid those circumstances.
"You need to choose an alternative activity and you need to just practice it. Will yourself to do it," Bouton said. "Following through on them is going to be hard work."