Your Brain Can’t Handle New Year’s Resolutions
The neuroscience is indeed interesting; the brain cells that operate willpower are located in the Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC), which is the area right behind your forehead. This area of the brain is also responsible for staying focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract tasks. When you set a New Year’s resolution, it is this PFC area that goes into overdrive, as an enormous amount of willpower is required. It is this surge in activity at that your brain simply can’t handle. Imagine your Pre Frontal Cortex as a simple muscle; it needs to be trained, developed and worked on. If you decide to train this ‘muscle’ at the start of the New Year, with a resolution to say quit smoking, add to it start going to the gym and then lose lots of weight, that’s the equivalent of doing an world record squat lift without any previous training. It’s no surprise that your brain can’t do the heavy lifting.
Look into my eyes and just do it. So you can blame your overloaded brain for it’s lack of success on seeing through you resolutions. There is a secondary problem about trying to tackle a goal because someone told you to (or because you simply think you should). It seems that taking on a goal because of outside pressure just makes people want to rebel. There’s an important distinction to be drawn between goals that we feel that we should accomplish and those we believe we truly want to accomplish. Rarely do we attain goals unless we truly embrace the goal. Make sure you’re only picking goals because you’re ready and eager to fulfill them.
So what strategies might work in helping you achieve your NYr? The latest research into the psychology and the neuroscience of goal setting and willpower offer some surprising non-cliché tips for making your resolutions work for you.
1. Pick Only One Resolution. Start with the biggest goal you have for 2015 and let’s focus on that one. Exclude all the sub goals and mini resolutions. In an experiment conducted at Stanford, one group of students was given a two digit number to memorise while the other group was given a seven digit number. Afterwards, they were asked to walk down a hallway while holding that number in memory and presented with the option to eat a slice of cake or fruit salad at the end. It turns out that the seven digit memorisers were nearly twice as likely to choose cake over the fruit salad. It was as though memorising the extra numbers took up ‘good decision making’ space in their brain. Pick one key goals to focus on and you’ll be much more likely to follow through. Then, let go of everything else, otherwise you’ll be picking the chocolate cake for every situation, instead of the choice that you set out to make.
1. Start on Monday. I know that New Year is on a Thursday this year, but think about the 5th as your key day. The turn of another year tricks us into seeing our big-picture selves, our slates wiped clean. Take advantage of it. People commit to their goals more fiercely after a major benchmark like New Year’s Day. If you are an I-don’t-believe-in-resolutions person who nonetheless wants to break a bad habit, wait for a Monday. It’s the most popular day of the week for starting diets and stopping smoking, studies show.
2. Focus on the carrot, not the stick. A new powerful study from the University of Chicago outlines how clearly positive feedback on any of your new habits will increase the likelihood of your success with your new habits and resolutions. Hand in hand with this goes the fact that rewarding yourself for advances with your habits with things that make you feel great way to increase your success rate.
3. Pick a Round Number. George Wu, Professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and his colleagues recently looked at marathon runners at the end of their races. A huge number of people finished in times that clustered around ’round’ numbers, the researchers discovered e.g. a 4-hour marathon. Marathon runners feel a lot worse just missing these really arbitrary reference points: the round numbers. So when people are really, really close to just missing their round-number goal, they’re much more likely to speed up at the painful end to beat it. People who are projected to beat it comfortably, however, actually slow down.
4. Chunk it up. My hero, the late Professor George Miller came up with a theory about short term memory ( 7 +/- 2 ) that helped people learn and recall more efficiently. Use the same ‘chunking up’process for your NYR. You know how good it feels to tick off an item from your to-do list. Put that to work by hacking a massive goal (reading 24 books a year, say) into parts (two per month).
One very comforting and important last fact is that having strong willpower is not something we’re born with, as opposed to popular opinion. So just like your muscles have to be trained in order to grow stronger, so does the Pre Frontal Cortex in your brain. The key is to make sure not to start lifting too heavy, as then we’re bound to drop everything on the floor with our New Year’s Resolutions.
One goal, 365 days, Be Amazing Every Day.
Happy New Year.