Behavioral Psychology

Keeping Your New Years Resolutions

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We start out the New Year with the best of intentions, sure that this time we will be able to make good on our resolutions and be successful at whatever it is we have set out to do. But ephemeral intentions rarely translate into concrete changes and very few of us go the distance. A measly 8% of people actually keep their New Year’s resolutions, and a trip to any gym in America will verify this statistic. For the next couple of weeks these gyms will be overflowing with eager new members, only to die back down to normal levels a few weeks later.

We will talk about some of the psychological reasons that most of us fail and how you can give yourself the best chance to be successful. You are fighting a difficult uphill battle when you attempt to change your behavior, because the neural circuits in your brain that are tied to your current behaviors have been strengthening for a long time and are well established. Most of our behaviors are tied to stimuli in our environment in the form of positive and negative reinforcements. This just means that we react to our surroundings. We like to think of ourselves as the primary movers in our own lives, as the captains of our own ships, but ships are dependent on a lot of outside variables like the wind and the size of the waves in the ocean.

You are attempting to plot a new course, but any one of the thousands of stimuli from your current environment can make the neural pathways associated with the behavior you are trying to change fire, in turn prompting you to act in the same way you always have. This is why changing embedded habits is not just a question of willpower, it’s also a question of intentionally altering automated responses, in effect working to make your resolution a new automated response that is every bit as subject to stimuli in your environment as your old one was. Whether our behaviors are good or bad for us, life affirming or life denying, nourishing or draining, they are usually habits that are the outward manifestation of firing neural pathways in our brains.

To give yourself a chance, you’ve got to counteract your current behaviors by setting a tangible plan that you can follow, where completing the new behavior is challenging but doable. And you’ve got to reward yourself for your effort with a positive reinforcement. Whatever your resolution is, break it down into as many parts as you can and then create a weekly schedule where you set aside the necessary blocks of time to move towards your overall goal. This is where discipline and willpower do come in, because you can override your internal feelings of apathy and just go for it during that block of time, whether you feel like it or not. Then reward yourself with something that is small but sufficiently motivating for you, like a piece of chocolate if you love candy or an episode of your favorite television show. Make sure to congratulate yourself out loud, and try to enlist the help of significant people in your life to praise you when your complete a block of time as well. All of these positive reinforcements release dopamine into your brain, which not only makes you feel really good but also acts as a glue to bind the newly forming neural pathways together.

Don’t get down on yourself for setbacks or for missing blocks of time, but make sure your schedule is in a visible place that you see every day, like on your refrigerator, and make sure that the instances where you were successful are clearly marked. This will be motivating for you and will also be a daily reminder of what you are trying to do. Global lifestyle changes don’t just happen. They depend on an infinite number of smaller behaviors, and these behaviors are all in opposition to the neural pathways that took up residence in your brain a long time ago. Changing them is not easy but if you use the plan outlined in this article you will give yourself the very best chance.