Little Known Ways to Make Your New Year's Resolution Stick

For some of us, New Year’s resolutions can feel like just the thing that we need to make the changes we’ve been putting off. Yet sometimes the feelings of optimism and determination don’t last through the first few weeks of January. Many lofty New Year’s resolutions simply become pesky reminders of our failure to follow through.

Does that mean that resolutions are worthless? Not necessarily. The New Year can be a wonderful time to reflect on what is going well and what we want to change. So how can we set ourselves up for success when making our resolutions?

Understanding how your brain works is a good place to start.

  • Executive function helps drive change. Following through on resolutions requires that we exert willpower and make decisions that align with our new goals. You can thank the part of your brain right behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex, for these skills. This is the seat of executive function and helps us manage our impulses and engage in goal-directed behavior.
  • Habits matter. While we human beings fancy ourselves to be goal-oriented and strategic thinkers, we actually live much of our lives on autopilot. This makes sense. It would take too much brain power—and would be exhausting--to engage our executive function for every single decision in our lives. Since the brain is built for efficiency, we outsource most of our daily actions to the basal ganglia –the part of the brain in charge of habits. If you’ve been driving a car for years, have you ever arrived at your destination with no recollection of how you got there? You can thank your basal ganglia for the thousands of unconscious actions and decisions you made to operate the car and successfully navigate to your destination.

Resolutions take brain power.

From the brain’s perspective, a New Year’s resolution is a “top down” pre-frontal cortex executive activity trying to override an automatic “bottom up” set of habits driven by the basal ganglia.

The good news? It can be done! We can change deeply ingrained habits that operate on auto-pilot.

The bad news? It’s exhausting. For starters, our capacity to control impulses and engage in “top down” thinking and decision making is limited on any given day. Good nutrition, downtime, or exercise is needed to recharge our supply. Stress, negative feelings, and 'high demand' environments diminish our reserve of self-regulation. That’s why people tend to eat junk food when they are sad or at the end of the day when their will power is worn down after hours of refusing sweets.

The habit loop.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, describes the three-step “habit loop” in our brains. First there is a cue, followed by a routine, and finally there is a reward. The reward motivates us to repeat the behavior in the future. Once these three steps are rehearsed over and over again a habit is born and the behaviors unfold automatically. That’s why resolutions are hard to keep.

So if our brains tend to switch to ingrained habits and our executive function resources are limited and decline as we get tired how in the world can we keep those New Year’s resolutions?

Here are some tips for success:

  • Be specific. Instead of a general resolution like, “I’m going to spend more time with my family,” try, “I'm going to put away digital devices during meal time.”
  • Make it achievable. Changing everything at once doesn’t set your prefrontal cortex up for success. Start with one or two small behaviors.
  • Think in terms of the three-step habit loop. Identify the cues and rewards and change the routine in between. For example, the kids start washing their hands for dinner (cue) so you put your phone or tablet in a basket outside of the dining room (new routine) and begin dinner by saying what you are grateful for (reward of connection).
  • Rewards aren’t bad. New Year’s resolutions that require lots of willpower with no reward aren’t likely to stick. Don’t shy away from healthy and reasonable rewards that feel good. This will help your brain stick to the new routine.
  • Make a plan for obstacles. Give your prefrontal cortex something to think about in the face of challenges, otherwise old habits will probably kick in. “If I am waiting for an urgent work email I will be sure to let my colleagues know that I will be unavailable between 6-7 pm.”
  • Think in terms of habits, not huge goals. If my goal for the year is to "write 2 new books" I am more likely to fizzle out. On the other hand, if I commit to a habit of "writing something everyday" I just might get there - or somewhere else meaningful altogether.
  • Make it public. Talk with your friends and family about the changes you are making so that they can support your new routine.
  • It takes practice. If you aren’t successful at first, don’t give up. Instead use it as an opportunity to learn about the habits that drive your behavior. Maybe you need to look at different cues or experiment with different rewards to make it stick. It also takes time to make a new habit the "default" in your brain.
  • Watch and celebrate cascading changes. Oftentimes when you make small habit changes in your life (For example, connecting with your kids at dinner, moving your body daily, reflecting at the end of the day, etc…), these new small habits may unleash other positive changes in your life.

Happy New Year,

Dr. Dave Walsh and Erin Walsh