Happy New Year!
Have you made any new year’s resolutions this year?
Despite the high failure rate of these resolutions – research by British psychologist Richard Wiseman in 2007 has shown that 88% of all resolutions end in failure – many continue to make the same resolutions year in and year out.
But just why are our old habits so hard to break?
The Science of Willpower
The brain area primarily responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for decision-making and goal-directed behavior, and the basal ganglia, which are involved in the formation of habits. When we make a resolution to change a behavior, our prefrontal cortex becomes active as we consider the pros and cons of the change and make a decision to pursue it. The basal ganglia are also involved in the process, as they help to encode the new behavior as a habit.
Making a resolution to change a behavior activates the brain’s reward system, releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine that can motivate us to pursue the desired change. However, this initial burst of motivation can often wane over time, making it difficult to maintain the new behavior. This is where the basal ganglia come in, as they help to consolidate the new behavior into a long-term habit that requires less conscious effort to maintain. When we perform a behavior repeatedly, the neural pathways associated with that behavior become stronger, making it easier for us to perform the behavior automatically. This is known as habit formation.
Breaking a habit requires breaking these neural connections and replacing them with new ones. This can be difficult because it requires a lot of conscious effort and often involves stepping outside of our comfort zone. It can also be challenging because habits often serve a purpose in our lives, such as providing a sense of structure or helping us to cope with stress.
One way to break a habit is to identify the triggers that lead to the undesirable behavior and find ways to avoid or modify them. It can also be helpful to replace the undesirable behaviour with a new, more desirable behavior that serves the same purpose. For example, if you want to break the habit of snacking on unhealthy foods when you’re feeling stressed, you might try replacing this behavior with a healthier coping mechanism such as going for a walk or practicing deep breathing.
5 Evidence-Based Tips To Help You Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions
Use implementation intentions: These are specific plans that outline when, where, and how you will carry out your resolution. For example, you might say, “I will go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 PM.” Research has shown that people who use implementation intentions are more likely to follow through on their goals.
Get accountability from others: Research has shown that people who have someone to hold them accountable for their actions are more likely to stick to their resolutions. You might enlist a friend or coach to check in with you regularly or join a support group where you can share your progress and get feedback.
Make the behavior automatic: As mentioned earlier, habits are formed through repetition. By performing a behavior repeatedly, it becomes easier to do automatically. To make your resolution a habit, try to incorporate it into your daily routine.
Use positive self-talk: Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of your resolution, try to focus on the positive benefits. For example, instead of saying “I can’t eat junk food,” try saying “I choose to eat healthy foods because they make me feel energised and strong.” This positive self-talk can help to motivate you to stick to your resolution.
Expect setbacks and plan for them: It’s normal to encounter setbacks when trying to make a change. To increase your chances of success, plan for these setbacks and have a strategy in place for how to handle them. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking and you have a craving, you might plan to go for a walk or call a supportive friend instead of lighting up a cigarette.
You might also find it helpful to watch this excellent video from Dr. Mike Evans.
Making a New Year’s resolution can be a powerful way to make positive changes in your life. However, it’s important to approach these resolutions with a plan in place to increase your chances of success. With dedication and perseverance, you can achieve your goals and make the positive changes you desire in the new year.