Why Your Brain Cannot Handle New Year’s Resolutions
Over 120 Million New Year’s resolutions will fall through each year
About 50% of Americans make a New Year’s resolution, but it is estimated that only 8% of people follow though on their commitments.
Why do so many New year’s resolutions fall through?
Second, sticking to a New Year’s resolution requires an incredible amount of willpower.
The part of your brain that is responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex, which is the area right behind your forehead.
A typical New Year’s Resolution such as “I will quit smoking”, “lose 50 lbs.”, or “finish writing my thesis”, puts a significant cognitive load on your prefrontal cortex – more than it was designed to handle.
Trying to follow through on a resolution that requires you to change ingrained habits, is like trying to lift heavy weights in the gym without any proper training.
No wonder most resolutions fall through before the end of January.
The good news is that you can train your prefrontal cortex just like a muscle.
In 2019, you can be among the elite 8% who follow through on their resolutions – you just need to know precisely how to define your resolution so that you work with your prefrontal cortex, instead of overloading it.
5 Types of New Year’s Resolutions That Will Set You Up For Disappointment
1. Multiple Resolutions
As you already know, trying to stick to just one New Year’s resolution requires a significant amount of willpower.
Multiple New Year’s resolutions will crash your prefrontal cortex by January 2nd.
For example, if you have a fear of writing, can you imagine trying to complete 100+ page dissertation, while also transitioning to a new diet to help you lose weight?
Your body is resistant to change, even if the change is beneficial.
Changing ingrained eating habits while also trying to discipline yourself to write a thesis, will probably result in a lot of frustration.
Most likely, you will not be able to follow through on either resolution
To maximize your chances of following through, pick just one resolution and stick to it.
Alternatives to multiple resolutions: I understand that sometimes it is difficult to pick just one resolution. I was 10 lbs overweight during my last year of graduate school, because I spent so much time working that I neglected my exercise routine and I ate whatever free food was around to get me through the day: pizza, cookies, or brownies.
As December 31st got closer, I had to make a decision about my New Year’s resolution: Was it more important to lose weight and be healthy, or was it more important to finish my thesis? They were both important! The resolution that I picked was to go the the gym every day during my lunch hour.
A 45 minute workout at the gym everyday helped me to lose weight, and I was always more productive after a workout.
The best part was that once I started working out, I had no cravings for junk food.
If you want to improve multiple areas of your life, think of a resolution that would support more than one goal.
Another example of a “multi-purpose” resolutions is to spend less time on email and social media – this will allow you to be more productive at work, and go home sooner to spend time with your family.
Goals such as “I want to be happier”, “I want to lose weight”, “I want to be a better person”, “I want to be a better researcher” are so ambiguous that it is nearly impossible to develop an action plan, and even if you do, it will be very difficult to tell whether you actually achieved your goals.
Your resolution needs to be specific, otherwise you will have little motivation to take any action to follow through.
One of the most frequent goals that my clients have is “I want to be more productive.” My next question is always: “Can you be more specific? How will you know if you became more productive?”
Once my clients change “I want to be more productive” to “I want to finish my assignments by their deadline”, or “I want to publish my first paper in 6 months” they can start to formulate an action plan that will help them meet their milestones.
Alternatives to vaguely defined goals: An acronym that is frequently used to help people define goals is SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. For example, if you are writing your thesis, a SMART goal would be: “Spend two hours a day writing my thesis.”
This goal is specific, measurable, and timely.
Unless you have time constraints or a physical limitation that would prevent you from spending 2 hours a day writing, this would be a SMART goal.
Whether or not this amount of time is sufficient to finish your thesis is another question – if it is not, you can adjust your resolution accordingly as long as it meets the SMART criteria.
3. Goals that are not under your control
The problem with a resolution such as “I want to lose 50 lbs.” is that it is not 100% under your control how many pounds you will lose.
Two people can do the exact same exercise routine and diet, and one person will lose 45 lbs. and other one will lose 55 lbs.
One of the most frequent reasons that people don’t make resolutions or set goals, is that they didn’t achieve them before and they don’t want to disappoint themselves again.
I don’t know anyone who achieved every goal they ever set out to do.
Even successful people experience many setbacks.
In fact, one of the reasons that some people become successful is that they learn from their mistakes and try again.
Alternatives to goals that are not under your control: Instead of setting a goal that you don’t have full control over, commit to changing a habit.
If you want to lose weight, make a commitment to work out at the gym three times a week, or to fill your pantry with healthy foods.
If you commit to changing a habit that is realistic and within your control, you will immediately feel a sense of accomplishment.
Similarly, if you want to defend your thesis by the end of 2019, commit to developing a new habit, such as a certain number of hours that you will write each day, or completing all your high priority tasks in the morning.
4. Too much too soon
If you have ever tried to get back into an exercise routine after a long hiatus, you know that you will run out of breath sooner that you want to admit, and the next day you will feel sore (and possibly injured).
The concept of “too much too soon” also applies to your work habits.
After one of my workshops a postdoc asked me for advice because he was working on 2 manuscripts simultaneously.
When he worked 4-5 hours in a row, he felt burnt out and could not write for several days.
I recommended that he reduce his hours to 1,2, or 3 hours a day until he found a “rhythm” that he could follow daily.
When you try to change a habit, you will be more successful is you practice the habit daily, even if you need to slow down your progress.
Alternatives to “too much too soon”: Here are some tips to help you change habits for good:
- Take baby steps: If you want to publish your first paper, but 2 hours a day sounds daunting, start with 15 minutes a day and gradually work your way up to 2 hours, or the length of time that you think is necessary to write your thesis
- Try again: What if you mess up? You committed to meeting all your deadlines, but you missed several of them and now you feel like a failure. You are not! Instead, think about why you missed your deadline and what you can do about it. During every session I have had with a client, we always found one or two things that they could adjust/eliminate in their work schedule or environment that helped them to become more productive
- Reward yourself: Did you take a bay step on January 1st? Great! Treat yourself to a small luxury such as reading a fun book for 15 minutes, enjoying your favorite brew of tea or coffee, or downloading a song to your mp3 player. Rewarding yourself regularly is one of the most powerful strategies to help you develop your “willpower” muscle that will support you in following through on your New year’s resolution.
It takes about 30 days to change a habit.
If you “mess” up on January 2nd, it does not mean that you will never be able to develop a new habit.
Simply try again, and be patient with yourself during your transition period.
If you are have a fear of writing and never published a paper before, then committing to 2 hours of writing a day to complete your first manuscript will most likely stir up a lot of anxiety.
Start with shorter lengths of time (5-15 minutes), and increase the time slowly.
While habits are difficult to change (reaching for the apples instead of the cookies at the supermarket), you have control over your actions.
If you follow through on your actions, even if they are tiny baby steps (such as eating fruit instead of cookies for dessert ), be sure to acknowledge yourself.
Choose a New Year’s resolution that is realistic, and that you can gradually incorporate into your life
5. Incompatible with your current lifestyle
One of my clients, Anna, only had a few weeks before her thesis deadline, and she estimated that she would need to write for at least 4-5 hours a day.
The problem was that she had so many other commitments (volunteer work and social events that she felt “compelled to attend”) that there were not enough hours in the day to make progress on her dissertation.
Anna had to make a decision: she either had to learn to say “No” to her outside commitments or she had to extend her graduation deadline.
She chose to focus on her thesis and reduce her outside commitments, as she knew that was the only way she could finish her writing.
She felt a lot of guilt about saying “No” to friends and family, until she realized that the people who really cared about her would understand that she was in dissertation crunch-time mode.
If your New Year resolution is incompatible with your current lifestyle, you need to either change your resolution or change your lifestyle.
Alternatives to a resolution that’s incompatible with your current lifestyle: Choose a resolution that is in alignment with the other priorities in your life.
If you realize that you need to make a major change in your work habits or your personal life, keep in mind that you don’t need to do make all the changes at once.
The most important part about developing a new habit (or breaking an old one) is to practice daily.
When I started writing my first publication, I only spent 15-20 minutes a day on it because I was also working in the lab full-time.
As I became more comfortable writing, I gradually increased the time I spent writing. I
must admit, I sometimes skipped a day (or two) and I felt rusty when I sat down to write again.
How can you keep up your motivation?
It is so much easier to fall back into our hold habits than to get outside our comfort zone and challenge ourselves.
To stay motivated for the next 365 days, celebrate every little achievement along the way.
You can treat yourself small luxuries that are within your budget, take 5 minutes at night to sip your favorite tea, or call a friend to share your accomplishment.
You don’t need to wait until you lose a certain number of pounds, or until you finish writing your thesis to experience a sense of achievement.
Give yourself that feeling of accomplishment each time you take a tiny baby step that brings you closer to your desired outcome.
An action that requires tremendous willpower at first (e.g. taking a walk at lunchtime instead of checking email) will eventually become a habit, and will free up your prefrontal cortex to take on new challenges in the new year.
If you have ever made a New Year’s Resolution, please share your experiences in the comments section below.
Please be specific as we have readers from all over the world who are looking for inspiration in the New Year!
Wishing You Success, Heath, Joy, and Much Happiness in 2019,
p.s. I already made my resolution for 2019.
I checked that it meets all the SMART criteria, and I know that I will stick to it, because it will help me and you achieve tremendous success in 2019!