As the year comes to an end, most of us are planning ahead and writing down our goals for the future. Otherwise known as setting New Year’s resolutions, many of us participate in this self-improvement ritual, yet few people actually follow through on them. Sounds familiar?
If you find yourself breaking your resolutions within the first few weeks of a new year, you are one of 77% of people this happens to, according to a study conducted by Reuters in 2007. One of the most common reasons this happens, according to cognitive psychologist Spencer Gerrol, is that we get carried away by the general enthusiasm for New Year’s resolutions and we set lofty goals.
As the CEO of SPARK Neuro, which employs cutting-edge neuroscience tools to measure audience engagement, Spencer studies how people think, feel, decide and act. “It’s a time of year when it is socially acceptable to talk about your goals and culturally expected to dream big,” Spencer says. This stimulates our brain, placing these goals at the center of our mind during those times. Spencer continues, “When setting these resolutions, dopaminergic reward systems (the orbitofrontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex) become more active.” The challenge then becomes keeping the brain stimulated and goal-focused in the long haul.
To make things harder, according to Spencer, our dopaminergic system (the same systems that made us value the goal in the first place) is susceptible to reinforcement learning. This means that when you’ve already experienced something pleasurable or rewarding, you are much more likely to engage in that behavior again. So if you have a habit of binge-watching shows on Netflix, browsing social media or indulging in a particular activity, you are more likely to keep doing these things, which usually don’t bring you closer to New Year’s goals.
How then do you execute on these resolutions? Conventional wisdom says that resolutions need to be attainable, but also challenging. While this is true, there’s a lot more to it. We tend to rely mostly on our willpower and grit, and while those are important traits, we need more to actually achieve our goals.
But before we delve into the how, let’s consider an often overlooked element of a successful New Year’s resolution. Spencer believes that you have to set goals that reflect your identity. In other words, derive your goal from who you are as a person, your beliefs and your values. This will help you better remember it. For example, don’t just say you will watch less TV. Dig deeper. Why do you want to do so? How will it improve your life? The same goal then becomes, “I will spend less time watching television because I value my friends and family and believe it is more important to nurture our relationship.” Repeat that phrasing of the goal like a mantra regularly so it can stick. This process makes an otherwise surface-level goal deeply grounded.
Now that you understand this, these tips will help you reach New Year’s resolution success:
Keep it simple
Your plan is to lose weight? Figure out the exact number of pounds you want to get rid of, and divide them into the twelve months. Once you set a monthly goal. work backwards to come up with the action plan that will take you there. By breaking your goal into smaller, digestible chunks, you are setting yourself to actually reach them—little by little. As Spencer explains, “You won’t get the regular dopamine payoff you need if the goal is too distant. Smaller, attainable steps along the way allow for the release of dopamine at each stage, and that pleasure response helps your brain create and retain a habit.”
If your goal is reinforced and encouraged by others, you are more likely to stick to it. Rely on your support system for not just times when you’re tempted to give up, but throughout the process of reaching your goals.
Track your progress
Your goal should include some easy way to measure progress. “Seeing improvement and tracking it over time is part of a successful cognitive reward system.” Spencer says. Whether you keep a journal or vision board on your desk, document your process and implement ways to track your progress. This creates pride, which is a reward in and of itself. It will also help you reflect on how far you have come, what you can improve for even better results.
Celebrate small wins
Praising yourself can go a long way in the reinforcement process you are encouraging your brain to undergo. Make sure that some sort of positive recognition or reward is part of the process. Buy yourself something you’ve been dreaming of, have a drink with friends, whatever that celebration may look like, make sure it’s part of the process. This will keep you going.