Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
Approximately 50 percent of us will make New Year’s resolutions this year, many of which will focus on getting healthier. “I’ll go on a diet,” “I’ll work out every day,” “I’ll cut out all sugar.” We’ve all heard these resolutions, if we haven’t made them ourselves.
Unfortunately, by the second week of February, 80 percent of us who made resolutions will have likely reverted back to our pre-New Years habits. It isn’t that we lack the commitment or we get too busy—our brains just aren’t designed to carry through on the resolutions we make.
Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail
According to Nielsen, the top 5 New Year’s resolutions for 2016 were:
- Staying fit/healthy
- Losing weight
- Spend less, save more
- Enjoy life to the fullest
- Spend more time with family
The reason 80 percent of people will abandon these resolutions by February is because they are all abstract aspirations—not behaviors—and aspirations don’t translate directly into habits.
Carrying through on an abstract idea when faced with a choice (e.g. get out of bed to work out or pass over a box of doughnuts at work) requires willpower. Willpower is controlled by the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is also responsible for focus, short-term memory, and problem solving.
Juggling this workload can be taxing, and like any muscle, the brain gets tired. This is why there are times when it’s much harder to say “no” to that second cookie. When willpower fails, habits (good and bad) take over.
Conversely, habits are established neural pathways and memories that become default behavior. They require little brainpower because when faced with a trigger or stimulus, the brain already knows what to do. For example, many of us relax the mind while driving because the process of making the subtle arm movements required to keep the car in the lane are well established in our brains. Our prefrontal cortex is free to concentrate on other things.
New Year’s Habits (Not Resolutions)
To make a resolution that sticks, we have to pave new neural pathways that become our default behavior. But how?
According to behavioral scientist BJ Fogg, starting with baby steps is often the most effective way to build lasting behavior change.
If you want to change a behavior, start small and identify one behavior to modify or eliminate. Be mindful of when the urge to do that behavior sets in, and consider what may be cuing it (i.e. food, time of day, facing a specific mental task). Once you’ve identified the cue, change the reward. Instead of going to the fridge to grab a cookie, grab an apple..
If you’re looking to introduce a new behavior, start by creating your own cue. If you want to start running in the morning, choose a simple cue (put on your running shoes before breakfast or keep your running clothes next to your bed). Next, establish a clear reward (a non-food treat or the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing down the miles you ran in a log book).
Our brains are hardwired to crave rewards. So, when a reward is associated with a cue or trigger, it creates a measurable neurological impulse which begins to pave those new pathways.
This New Year’s, choose a behavior as your resolution and work on making it a habit. This approach will improve your chances of sticking to the resolution long-term.
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