The Secret for Actually Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions, According to Science

A better understanding of brain science can help you follow through on your goals.

New-years-resolutionsZerbor/ShutterstockThere are some resolutions you should never make, because they’re doomed to fail. But isn’t that true about most New Year’s resolutions? Though millions of people vow in January to lose weight, exercise more, eat better, drink less, by the following December, less than 10 percent of New Year’s resolutions are actually achieved. Science is beginning to understand why. According to Tim Pychyl, PhD, a psychologist at Carleton University, our failure at keeping resolutions comes down to the way our brains work.

“There’s one obvious reason why most resolutions fail: We focus on goals or tasks that we haven’t been able to achieve over the past year. We are making it our New Year’s goal because we keep failing at it,” Pychyl tells Popular Science. It’s an uphill battle before we even start.

What’s more, it’s super-easy to make resolutions. “The simple thought—the idea that we intend to lose weight or exercise more—satisfies our instant gratification,” Pychyl says. “In the moment, just thinking about losing weight makes us feel good, and we don’t actually have to go out and do the tasks necessary to achieve that goal.”

The brain then sabotages our follow-through in two ways: First, habits take over. Habits are wired in the brain through connections of neurons, and the more we execute habitual behavior, the stronger those neuronal connections become. Pychyl adds that the brain’s entire limbic system is devoted to automatic survival thinking, while the prefrontal cortex—the decision-making center of our brain—does its best to determine when it can and should override those instincts. Apparently, our vow to hit the treadmill more often doesn’t make the cut.

Second, as fMRI scans have shown, people tend to process thoughts about their present selves in a different area of the brain from where they process thoughts about their future selves, according to Hal Hershfield, a marketing professor at UCLA’s School of Management. In fact, the area of the brain associated with our future selves turns out to be the same area associated with thoughts about strangers. Neurologically-speaking, we think about our future selves as strangers, so we are less likely to empathize enough with that person to spark motivation.

How to keep New Year’s resolutions

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still strive for self-improvement—there are ways to make a lasting positive change in your life. Studies show that the key is to weaken the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which sounds scary but is actually quite simple, using a strategy called mindfulness.

Mindfulness, the act of bringing awareness to what you’re presently experiencing, thinking, or feeling, has proven very effective at altering patterns of thinking and behavior. For example, it can help you stop automatically linking certain behaviors or actions—like going for a run or eating green vegetables—with negative thoughts, so you’ll be more likely to do them. “If you haven’t been excited about exercising in the past, you aren’t likely going to be in the future,” Dr. Pychyl says, unless you’re able to change your associations with exercise. Here’s how to cultivate mindfulness.

To use mindfulness for New Year’s resolutions, start by making your goals as specific as possible. For example, rather than vowing to “eat healthy,” map out specific actions you’ll take, such as cutting out soda at lunch or adding a vegetable to every meal. (These are some other New Year’s resolutions you’ll want to keep).

Second, set prevention goals over promotion goals. The “promotion goal” is typically a hope or aspiration geared toward what we’d like to achieve, like a flat belly or a nicer car. On the other hand, a prevention goal is something that we believe we are responsible for doing out of personal duty. Instead of wanting to eat healthy to look better in your clothes, for example, consider it a responsibility to your family that you remain healthy. A prevention goal is more compelling because it connects the resolution to a more urgent emotion, automatically making you more vigilant.

As psychologist Melanie Greenberg, Phd, explains in Psychology Today, “Understanding what is most meaningful to you in life (such as your health, family, or work) and committing to taking specific, manageable actions to achieve your goals in these areas can put you back in the driver’s seat of your life.” See how one woman is using mindfulness to make better decisions every day.

Above all, remain hopeful, and don’t make your future self feel like a stranger. While the frustration of an unused gym membership may be a reminder of lost resolutions, the new year really isn’t meant to be a catalyst for sweeping character transformations; rather, it’s a promise to make positive changes going forward.

Check out these tricks for keeping your resolutions, from people who actually did.

[Source: Popular Science]

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Hana Hong
Hana Hong is a journalist/storyteller who writes for Reader's Digest, InStyle, CollegeFashionista, Her Campus, and The Fashion Network, among other publications. She hails from the midwest, where she graduated from the University of Illinois with a BA in News-Editorial Journalism, but has a passion for the East Coast.