It’s a tradition to make New Year’s resolutions at the start of a new year, resolving to change our lives in some way. We review the past year, beat ourselves up a little about what we failed to achieve and decide we are going to do much better in the year ahead. We are going to eat more healthily, go to gym and get out of debt. By February, the rot has already set in. We’ve all been there and very few people appear to be able to stick to their resolutions. It’s fun to make them and even though we fail at them, we continue to make them. We have this innate optimism about the possibility of change. Knowing more about the inner workings of the brain can help us to understand why resolutions are so hard to keep and what we can do to change this.
Why does this happen?
The resolutions themselves are often vague – lose weight, make more money, get fit. Instead of focusing on one goal, we use the start of a new year to try and reinvent ourselves. Biology makes that very difficult as we are creatures of habit and it’s hard to change habits.
Another contributing factor is that the brain has spent centuries rewarding us with dopamine when we give in to our urges. Desires like eating and sex are encouraged by the most primitive parts of our brains because they prolong life. We get a rush from giving in to pleasurable urges, despite the fact that the more evolved parts of our brain tells us we will regret it. So, parts of our brain are set up to reward us for things that bring instant gratification but are bad for us in the long run. We sacrifice our long term goals for immediate gratification and this is why it is so difficult to diet, save or get fit.
Can your brain change?
Yes, it can, and it does.The human brain has about 100 billion neurons. “All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected,” says Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web. A single neuron may possess 10,000 or so dendrites through which it can interact with other neurons.
We remember things that are important to us and forget things that are no longer important to us. Of course, we all forget the occasional important thing like where we put the car keys but on the whole, we remember and learn things that are significant to us – that is, connected to things we already know. If we hear a new word in English and we already speak English, we are more likely to remember it than if we do not speak English. Babies learn to speak by repeating the same words over and over. We learn a musical instrument by playing the same sequence of chords hour after hour. Repetition seems to be important in remembering and learning things. Two crucial processes in the brain, therefore, appear to be making connections with things we already know and repetition. To remember something or learn a new skill, the dendritic connections between neurons is strengthened. By strengthening the connections between large numbers of neurons, new knowledge is permanently connected to something we already know and a memory is laid down. It’s amazing to think that whenever we read a book or have a conversation, it can cause physical changes in our brains.
The brain can constantly rebuild and rewire itself. By the strengthening of the connections between the neurons, the network that encodes what we know changes all the time. It makes new connections and loses some as well. Think of the neural network like a thick hedge which is growing in places and being pruned back in others. The pruning occurs when connections are lost between neurons. Just as not exercising causes muscles to atrophy, not exercising the brain causes it to weaken or lose many of its existing connections.
Learning a new skill is a similar process to laying down a memory. Riding a bike, for example, requires using certain muscles. Strengthening of the dendrites that connect to neurons that control these muscles makes it easier to control them. Just as a memory is encoded in a network of neurons, a skill like riding a bike is too and it becomes hard-wired and automatic. This strengthening and weakening of connections between neurons or the creation of new connections to modify the network is known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is central to understanding how the brain works. It explains how new experiences constantly rewire the brain. It explains how a stroke victim may recover lost facilities when the task of the neurons that have been affected are taken over by others. Rehabilitation is hard because reprogramming a stroke victim is similar to teaching a child a new skill for the first time. Is there an age at which your brain can no longer change? No, it is able to make new connections as long as you live.
Keep your resolutions
In his book The Brain that Changes itself, Norman Doidge explains that neuroplasticity is competitive – whatever you pay attention to takes up real estate in your brain. “When we learn a bad habit, it takes over a brain map, and each time we repeat it, it claims more control of that map and prevents the use of that space for ‘good habits,” he writes.
1. Choose measurable goals
If your goal is to be healthier, this is very vague. When you can’t quantify it in some way, there is no way to make yourself accountable. Choose something you can measure more easily, such as deciding you will eat one leafy, green vegetable every day. Make a vision board and keep checking back to see how far you have progressed. A vision board helps to turn a vague goal into something more concrete. Get other people in on it too so they can help you to stay accountable. It also helps to meet or read about those who have successfully achieved a similar goal and find out how they did it. Small, measurable improvements are far easier to achieve and maintain.
2. Set small goals
Make several small goals to achieve a larger goal. You have to look at it in the same way as you would think about training for a marathon. You would not be able to jump out of bed and run the marathon without training. You would have to start slowly and run a little further each day.
To successfully lose weight, for example, you have to do more than just make a decision to eat less. You would have to shop differently, change the way you cook and start exercising.
Perhaps you have a resolution to save more. If you have never been able to save, your first goal might be to save a small amount of money every month. Even if this is as little as $10 a month, and you did it consistently, you would begin to make saving a habit.
3. Use repetition
Your old behaviour comes with deeply rooted neuro-pathways. To achieve your new goals, you have to create new pathways. Repetition, as discussed above, will create those new pathways. This may involve starting out every morning by reading your goals on your vision board out loud to anchor them in your brain. Place your vision board in a space where you see it often throughout the day. It helps you to constantly recapture the feeling when you first made those resolutions.
4. Make willpower less important
If money is automatically transferred from your current account to a savings account at the end of the month when you are paid, your goal of saving won’t have to depend on willpower alone. If you don’t buy sweets and keep them in the house, it’s easier to avoid eating them. If you don’t take your credit card when you go clothes shopping, you will be less likely to make impulse buys.
5. Make plans for moments of weakness
You may be very determined but there will always be moments of weakness. Think ahead to specific scenarios and how you normally respond to them. Come up with ways to cope in those moments so you won’t be derailed. For example, buy healthy snacks to replace the junk food you usually snack on when you watch TV.
6. Visualise your future self
It’s easy to put off what is not essential to you in the present – future wellbeing is sacrificed for present enjoyment. When you visualize your future self, you can take all the small steps to bring that vision into being. For example, set an end date – such as your 60th birthday – and decide that at that date you will be in the best physical condition of your life.
7. Remind yourself why
Research has showed that if you consistently remind yourself why you want to do something, it will keep you motivated. You may want to stay fit and healthy because you want to be able to enjoy your grandchildren.
8. Don’t forget to reward yourself!
Reward yourself for those goals you have achieved successfully. Acknowledge in some way what you have achieved as you achieve it. You’ll feel good when you accomplish each small goal, and your success will help to keep you going.
Don’t let failure deter you from fulfilling your resolutions. Remember that the brain is capable of change and that there are ways to harness its potential. The more you realize this, the more likely you are to be able to stick with your goals and achieve them.