As we step into 2022, we’ve been thinking a lot about New Years Resolutions and how we can enter the year with a new mindset, so we reached out to Dr. Jud Brewer, an expert on habit change for a conversation on how we can achieve our goals and train our brains.

WAM: This is a time of year a lot of people make resolutions to improve their health. They are excited to get started, but then find they can’t keep up with the discipline it takes to follow through on their goals. What’s the greatest obstacle to making change sustainable? 

Dr. Jud: Our greatest obstacle: not knowing how our brain works. Modern society emphasizes the power of the individual; if we just push hard enough, we can do it, whether meeting that goal of exercising 5x a week or quitting junk food. The problem is that this isn’t how our brains work. If it did, my outpatient psychiatric clinic would look very different. In one visit, I could tell my clinic patients to stop smoking, stop overeating, stop worrying and they’d be done! Unfortunately, willpower is more myth than muscle. And on top of this, willpower is a lot of work -we exhaust ourselves with the effort, and spiral into self-judgment and shame when we fail.

WAM: You say awareness of our emotions is key to changing behavior. Why—and how do we get in touch with those emotions to make them effective in bringing about change?

Dr. Jud: My lab has been studying behavior change for decades. It turns out that the key ingredient for changing any habit is awareness. That’s because our brains learn through a process called reward-based learning: the more rewarding a behavior is, the more we’ll do it, until it becomes a habit (here’s a short animation that explains the process). I think of this as “set and forget”: we set how rewarding something is, and then forget about the details. But the devil really is in the details. We need to be aware of how rewarding—or unrewarding—the behavior is in order to change it. For example, my lab just did a study of our Eat Right Now app that helps people pay attention when they overeat or eat unhealthy food. We found that within 10-15x of someone paying attention to what it feels like to overeat, the reward value in their brain drops BELOW ZERO, and they shift their behavior. Why? Well, it doesn’t actually feel very good. Once we pay attention, our brain realizes that this isn’t rewarding, and we naturally shift our behavior, not because we think we should or force ourselves, but because we’re naturally less driven to do it.

WAM: Do we know what provides people the best sense of reward—the kind that allows them to stick with a resolution?

Dr. Jud: Our brain is pretty much a one trick pony. It learns almost everything that we do in regular life through reward-based learning. So we can tap into this process not only to break bad habits. So paying attention to how good it feels after we exercise, instead of telling ourselves that we should exercise (the joke goes that “we should all over ourselves”), naturally taps into the reward. And the more rewarding something feels, the more likely we are to do it. (Note how unrewarding it feels to try to force ourselves to do something.)

WAM: Can you give people some helpful tips on how to put your theory into practice when it comes to making brain healthy changes this year?

Dr. Jud: The next time you are deciding whether to exercise or not, think back and pay attention to how good it felt the last time you exercised. Compare it to what it felt like the last time you didn’t exercise. See which one feels more rewarding. When the urge to eat something sweet comes up, pay careful attention as you eat it. Use this question as a guide: “how little is enough?” and pay careful attention with each bite. Check to see how little you need to be satisfied. You might be surprised by how little it takes.

WAM: What if you want to reduce anxiety?

Dr. Jud: This is an interesting one. I never learned in medical school that anxiety could be driven like other habits. So we developed an app (Unwinding Anxiety) and tested to see if awareness could help people with something as severe as generalized anxiety disorder. We found that we could get a 67% reduction in anxiety, which blew me away (and makes all of our jobs as psychiatrists easier). The key here is also learning that our brains don’t like uncertainty, and that we can use awareness, and curiosity in particular to work with the feelings of anxiety instead of getting stuck in a worry habit loop (I go into detail in this Ezra Klein podcast).

WAM: When people are feeling like they’ve tried to make change, but just can’t put that cookie down or go for a brisk walk, what’s the one best piece of advice you have for them so they don’t give up or feel like they’ve failed completely?

Dr. Jud: Be kind to yourself. And give yourself the gift of learning how your brain works so you can work with it instead of fighting against it.

Jud Brewer MD PhD (“Dr. Jud”) is a New York Times best-selling author and thought leader in the field of habit change and the “science of self-mastery”, having combined over 25 years of experience with mindfulness training with his scientific research therein. He is the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor in Behavioral and Social Sciences and Psychiatry at the Schools of Public Health & Medicine at Brown University. He is also the executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare Inc. and a research affiliate at MIT. A psychiatrist and internationally known expert in mindfulness training for addictions, Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. He has also studied the underlying neural mechanisms of mindfulness using standard and real-time fMRI and EEG neurofeedback. He has trained US Olympic athletes and coaches, foreign government ministers, and his work has been featured on 60 Minutes, TED (4th most viewed talk of 2016, with 17+ Million views), the New York Times, Time magazine (top 100 new health discoveries of 2013), Forbes, BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera (documentary about his research), Businessweek and others. His work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, among others. Dr. Brewer founded MindSciences (which merged with Sharcecare Inc. in 2020) to move his discoveries of clinical evidence behind mindfulness for anxiety, eating, smoking and other behavior change into the hands of consumers (see for more information). He is the author of The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) and the New York Times best-seller, Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind (Avery/Penguin Random House, 2021). Follow him on twitter @judbrewer.