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A Neuroscientific Approach to Setting Sustainable & Attainable New Year Resolutions

Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #345) and blog, I talk about New Year’s resolutions, including what they are, how to think about and make New Year’s resolutions, and how to use resolutions to bring about sustainable change in your life.

First, let’s be honest with ourselves: many of us don’t stick to our New Year’s resolutions. And we are not alone! Several studies show that around 80% of people abandon their resolutions very early in the new year.

So, why do we keep on making resolutions? What drives us to make changes in the new year? Is this a bad thing? Not at all! We should be excited to start the new year with new goals and resolutions. A New Year’s resolution means setting a goal for ourselves, which we should all do on a regular basis, and not just in the new year.

From a neuroscientific perspective, it is good to set goals. When we set goals, we are using our executive functions, — thinking, feeling and choosing — in a more coordinated way, which generates coherence and healthy changes in the brain. For instance, the amygdala is arranged to respond like a library, which means that when we set a goal, it evaluates how important that goal is for us based on past goals we have set and achieved (or not achieved). Our frontal lobe responds when we think, feel and choose, which helps us problem solve, introspect and figure out the details of how we will accomplish our goal or resolution. Both of these parts of the brain function coherently together when we are focused on a specific goal. As we start focusing on this goal, these areas in the brain get higher beta and gamma energy across the left and right side in a more coherent way, which helps support healthy cognitive function. In fact, when the frontal lobe works with the amygdala to achieve our goals, we will start to perceive obstacles that might hinder the goal as less significant!

But resolutions can be hard to keep, even with all these great things happening in the brain—we all know this. I think a great way to see a New Year’s resolution is to imagine it is a cake. There are certain ingredients that make this “cake” bake well:

1. Be kind to yourself and grateful for what you did achieve this past year, or even over the past two years!

Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small or big they are.

One great way to do this is writing down all the things that happened in the last year that brought you joy. Note what has changed in your life for the better—what happened over the past year that got you here? Celebrate these achievements! And, when you do this, try to focus on the positive and reframe the negative.

You may feel a sense of peace when you write this list. Embrace this feeling! Take that list and try to surround yourself with the people who made you happy, the things that brought you joy and the places that made you feel at peace.

Next, write down all the things you are looking forward to in 2022. Is there a vacation you are looking forward to taking? Are you visiting a friend/family member you haven’t seen in a while? Is there a new movie or TV show you want to watch, or a book you want to read? Are you starting a new job, or plan to start a new job? Do you want to achieve something specific? Why? How will this improve your life? As you write these lists, you will feel more encouraged and develop your sense of hope for the future.

2. Remember that the biggest thing about goals is the TIME it takes, whether it’s a new lifestyle habit or changing something that is stealing your peace. 

Changes in thinking and behavior occur in 63-day cycles, which is how long it takes to build a new thought network that influences how we think, feel and choose. (I discuss this in detail in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, my app Neurocycle and my blogs and podcasts.)

Essentially, for a thought network ormemory to be usable (which is how a goal starts in the mind), it needs lots of energy. It gets lots of packets of energy when you repeatedly think about and practice it daily, especially during the first twenty-one-day cycle, which facilitates the required neurochemical and structural changes in the brain that make it a usable and useful thought. Then, for the next forty-two days, you need to continue to consciously practice using the new thought, which allows a useful habit to form. 

This means that we can all realistically achieve 5 to 6 major goals or resolutions each year! (Just do the math: 365/63=5.8) This may not seem like a lot, but it actually is! Can you imagine making 6 major changes to your life each year? The transformation would be incredible!

However, I do not recommend trying to figure out 6 different things all at once when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. Rather, find 1-2 specific goals/resolutions and break them into 9-week segments that you can start working on.

A large group of different studies indicates that new year’s resolutions tend to fail because they are often quite overarching and not specific enough. We tend to give ourselves a big task when we see the whole year ahead of us—it seems like the perfect amount of time to achieve our resolution. Indeed, it is easy to look at the big picture and say, “By the end of the year, I will have changed this!” However, when we start doing the work as the year goes on, it seems like a lot more effort is needed—definitely more than we anticipated! Consequently, our motivation tends to wane as we see all the days stretch out ahead of us.

When we do this, we are essentially treating what should be a marathon like a quick sprint. If you start a marathon by sprinting, you will be completely worn out by the first mile! It is far better to measure your pace so you don’t tire out too fast.

So, instead of sprinting towards your resolution, try setting increments of tasks every 7 days to achieve a specific goal at the end of the 9 weeks. For example, you may wish to be more adventurous. This is the big picture goal. Now, you can break that down and say something like, “Each month I will think of something new that I want to do that will fulfill my needs in that moment and make me feel like I am adventurous.” This will help you focus on the present moment while keeping your bigger goal in mind.

When you set a goal/resolution in increments like this, on January 1st all you need to focus on is your incremental goal for the month of January. February will come when it comes; you are in the “here and now” and just need to focus on the first part of your goal. As a result, the small changes that you make each month won’t feel so intimidating, and you won’t feel as worn out by achieving them! 

3. Practice daily mind management and self-regulation to achieve your overall goal.

Make sure you stay focused on what you want to change each day by building your goal into your mind, brain and body in little bits each day.

To do this, I recommend using the mind management technique I have researched, developed and applied clinically over the past three decades: the Neurocycle. The kind of self-regulation that is achieved using the Neurocycle is a great way to deal with the root of the toxic cycles in your life and reconceptualize them and how they impact your wellbeing. It is done in 5 steps:

  • Gather awareness of what you are feeling emotionally and physically as you work on a negative cycle/habit in your life.
  • Reflect on how this is impacting you and why—be as specific as possible.
  • Write this down—this is way to help organize your thinking and gain clarity.
  • Recheck what you have written. Look for patterns in your life, your relationships, your responses, your attitudes and so on. What is the antidote? What do you want to change and how?
  • Take action. I call this step an “active reach”. It is essentially an action you take to reinforce the new, reconceptualized pattern of thinking you want in your life (which is replacing the old, toxic habit).

For more on the Neurocycle method and how to use it to break toxic cycles, check out my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and my app Neurocycle.

4. Set a time for when you are going to build this goal into your life, and pick a theme for the year. 

This could be any word, idea, or concept that speaks to you. For example, my theme last year (which I am going to use this year again!) was to have a possibilities mindset, and my mantra is that every failure is knowledge gained—when something doesn’t work out, this is a possibility to grow, because now I know something doesn’t work, and I am one step closer to achieving my goals!

As you face the start of a new year, give yourself space, compassion and grace to achieve your goals. Don’t rush the process—take things moment by moment. Remember to enjoy life while trying to achieve your goals. Don’t try to sprint through the marathon! Pace yourself, and you will be able to finish. You got this!

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