Updated: Jul 31
January is the month dedicated to new beginnings and fresh starts. Without fail, at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, we collectively breathe a sigh of closure for the year past and hope for the year ahead.
We start off with the best intentions – lose weight, make time for family, save more money. But no matter how hard we want to change, 92% of us fail to follow through.
So, what’s happening? Why do we try year after year, without success, to set a new year’s resolution? Turns out, there are a few factors at play, and our brains are actually working against us.
The most obvious reason why resolutions fail is that we simply choose goals that aren’t easy to keep.
It doesn’t matter what that specific resolution is, the fact that you’ve chosen it as a thing that needs to change in your life, means that it’s something that doesn’t come easily to you. After all, how many of us make a resolution to eat more junk food or to sit on the couch and watch more TV? We choose resolutions that are already a challenge for us.
Another resolution trap is in the psychology behind setting goals. Simply put, making a goal feels good, but actually doing the work to achieve that goal…well, that doesn’t feel as good.
When you think to yourself, “This year, I’m going to eat healthier,” you feel good about yourself. You feel motivated and even get a sense of accomplishment just by thinking about eating healthier. This is because setting a goal satisfies our need for instant gratification. But when that craving for pizza strikes and you’ve resolved to not give in, that’s when the real work starts.
New year’s resolutions also have to go up against a very strong force – habit.
Breaking a habit can feel impossible because we have to actually change our brain structure in order to change our habits.
The neurons in our brains work together to form connections over time. When we repeatedly perform a task, those connections get stronger and stronger, forming a habit. Ever try to turn on your bedroom light during a power outage? You know you can’t turn on your light, but your hand reaches for the switch anyway because that neural connection has become very strong.
According to research, acknowledging this connection is the first step in changing habits. When you understand what’s going on in your brain, you have a better shot at controlling it.
Another tip is to take a cue from the ancient practice of mindfulness. The basic concept here is to try to disassociate any negative emotions from the new habit you want to create, and instead, see things through an unbiased lens.
For example, rather than thinking, “I don’t want to work out today,” try “I work out on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.” The second option removes emotion from the situation and instead turns it into a matter of fact.
If you can remove negative feelings from the task at hand, you’ll start to loosen that neural connection, which could make forming new habits easier.
Keep in mind, strong habits (like not working out) will be difficult to break. Mindfulness can help, but that too will take time to perfect. Be patient with yourself and make sure your resolution follows these guidelines to set yourself up for success.
Maldarelli, Claire. (2016, December 29). Why your brain makes New Year’s Resolutions impossible to keep. Retrieved from https://www.popsci.com/how-to-use-brain-science-to-stick-to-your-new-years-resolutions