Why your brain can’t handle New Year’s resolutions

Why your brain can’t handle New Year’s resolutions

Let me guess: You want to save more money and spend less, quit smoking, lose weight or maybe just spend more time with family. These are typical top New Year’s resolutions on everyone’s list.

On the New Year’s Eve day, I asked a handful number of people what are their resolutions for 2015 and they told me that they’re still stuck to the resolutions they made two years ago. There were an intriguing number of people in my Facebook list openly made fun of New Year’s resolutions saying that they never work. This really made me think why we are so bad at keeping our newly set out resolutions. Are people just weak-willed or lazy?

According to a research by Norcross and his colleagues, about 50% of the population makes resolutions each New Year. That’s pretty amazing. What’s not so great is that only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s goals. Here is the actual science with resolutions and the reasons most people have given up on them.

Don’t stamp it with “RESOLUTION”

Now first let’s talk about why do we normally take this time of the year to make resolutions. The origin of this traces back to the ancient Greek history. The Romans began each year by making promises of good conduct to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. And since that time, the concept is to reflect upon self-improvement annually. It’s become a socially sanctioned time where everyone has a new opportunity to write a chapter in a 365 page book.

When you set a New Year’s resolution, it takes a tremendous feat of willpower. It’s an amount that your brain simply can’t handle. This is better described in a scientific experiment as below:

Experiment 1
A group of undergraduate students was given a two-digit number to memorize, whereas the second group was given a seven-digit number. After a short walk down the hall, they were given two snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. It resulted in aberrant findings. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to favor the chocolate cake compared to those students who were assigned a two-digit figure. The reasoning of why this happens?
Those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessertProf. Baba Shiv, Stanford University

This research suggests that willpower is an extremely limited mental resource and like a muscle, can be exhausted if hold too much. And just as our bicep gets fatigued after an intense workout, so does our brain. If you decide to aggressively work that muscle at the start of the New Year, that’s parallel of lifting a 200 pound dumbbell without any existing training. You spend all that energy in the beginning and then run out of steam. It’s no wonder that your brain can’t get used to vision the heavy lifting.

The lesson is that start spreading out your goals over time. Make it a year long process, every day and not just on New Year’s Eve day.

Bad habits die hard

Habits help us do everything, every day from making a latte to operating the photocopy machine.  Our mind makes the thinking and behavior automatic so that our conscious mind can deal with more complex things.

The problem arises when we set goals that go against our nature. Change of any kind is difficult because our brain will set up a defense mechanism to prevent us from changing what is automatic and unconscious. Since most of our New Year’s resolutions involve breaking these behavior patterns, we become overwhelmed or intimidated by the difficulty. The truth is that there isn’t much point in resolving to change a habit and try to get rid of it, but rather replace it with new thinking.

What a mistake – the whole idea around New Year’s resolutions. People aren’t picking specific behaviors, they’re picking abstractions. BJ Fogg, Stanford University
Experiment 2
In one experiment led by Ann Graybiel of MIT’s McGovern Institute, rats were trained to run through a T-shaped maze. Upon reaching the T, the decision point, they heard a tone indicating whether they should turn left or right. When they chose correctly, they received a reward – sugar water for turning right or chocolate milk for turning left. They underwent many training sessions until they were considered ‘over-trained’ — beyond the point of any additional learning. The rats responded to the tones in the same way even when researchers removed the rewards. And when the reward for turning left correctly was spiked with a substance that made the rats sick, they would still turn left when cued to do so – but simply not consume the fluid.

Why? The authors interpret this  as being habitual behavior because the rats continued to run to the proper arm of the maze even after the reward had been “devalued” by tainting it with sickness-inducing Lithium Chloride.

Professor Wendy Wood of Psychology and Business at University of Southern California, said:

When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about self-control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine.

The key to establishing new habits is first to understand who you are and why you do the things you do. Say, for instance, you’re trying to lose weight and looking for more healthy diet options. If you have a habit of eating  toast topped with peanut butter, simply replace your spread with almond butter. It has a higher nutritional value over peanut butter and you’re not of giving up your habitYou’re simply replacing it with the thing we all know you really want and which you surely consume. 

Setting overly ambitious resolutions

It can be so daunting when your list of New Year’s goals is as long as your shopping list. Most of us create resolutions that are too big and we attempt to commit to too many resolutions at once. And that spreads our focus and energies too thin therefore we can’t meet them. While setting overly ambitious resolutions can give you a sense of fun and feeling of motivation, the difficulties in achieving them can easily lead to more negative emotions such as frustration and cynical behavior.

Experiment 3
In another experiment, the researchers provided participants with a to-do list of “virtuous activities” to complete over the course of five days; some people had one activity, but others had six. Half the participants were encouraged to plan specifically how, when, and where they would carry out the to-do list each day. They found that specific planning helped people who had a single goal on their to-do list, but not people with multiple goals.

Setting more than three goals with a deadline of a year can be overwhelming. Think small both in terms of time frames and the number of goals you plan to accomplish. Choose the one that will give you the biggest payoff.

Too hung up on self-improvement

While most of us ought to include a promise of improving an area of weakness as one of our goals, too many people attempt to make extreme makeovers either personal or professional without realizing that this type of approach is doomed to failure. Aiming for the moon can be so psychologically taxing that you end up failing to launch in the first place.

There is far more can be achieved by setting goals in areas of strength rather than in areas of weakness. Weaknesses need to be brought up, but having goals in areas of weakness is not motivating and therefore does not focus attention and energy on building performance.

Don’t get overwhelmed and think that you have to reassess everything in your life. Instead, consider things you’re good at and set goals that leverage those strengths.

Realizing strengths, in my view, is the smallest thing that you can do to make the biggest difference. Alex Linley

Resolutions deserve a little more respect. And believe it or not, some people who make resolutions actually do stick to them. Begin with treating resolutions as marathons, not a hundred-yard dash.

 

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions? How are you planning on approaching them?

Share your thoughts on this in the comments.

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