The neuroscience behind New Year's resolutions

The neuroscience behind New Year’s resolutions

Published 17th December 2014

It’s time to dust off those New Year’s resolutions. As 2015 approaches we’re looking back at those resolutions that seemed so reachable 11 short months ago. Why were they so hard to keep? What can we do to increase our success?

This year – determined to take a more scientific approach to our own resolutions – we’ve explored the research on the neuroscience behind New Year’s resolutions. Here are the top ten things we found:

1. 88% of New Year’s resolutions fail, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by British psychologist Richard Wiseman
The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex is located just behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex has a few more things to worry about than just our New Year’s resolutions. It is in charge of keeping us focussed, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. No wonder it can’t always keep us on track with our resolutions as well.

2. Research suggests that willpower is inherently limited
Think of willpower like any muscle in our body. Exercise it too much and our ‘willpower muscle’ will get tired. Our prefrontal cortex can become fatigued and needs time off to recuperate. Our willpower muscle can be strengthened with exercise.

3. Will power takes actual energy
An experiment by Professor Baumeister in 2007 college found that students who fasted for 3 hours before performing self-control tasks had significantly lower glucose levels than those who didn’t have to exert self-control.

4. Make only one New Year’s resolution
Any more than one and our prefrontal cortex can’t handle the additional load. In 2002, researchers at the University of Albany in the US asked a group of male subjects ‘not to think about a white elephant’ while writing down their thoughts – a challenging mental task that puts strain on the prefrontal cortex.

Afterwards the subjects participated in a ‘beer taste test’ but were warned they would be later required to drive a car. At the end of the test, those who performed a mentally challenging task drank significantly more beer than those engaged in the simple tasks – suggesting that ‘a stressed prefrontal cortex’ doesn’t make very good decisions.

5. 40% of our daily lives are taken up by habits and it takes anywhere from 28 days to 254 days to change a habit
But when you find yourself a slave to an unhealthy habit it’s likely that your basal ganglia is to blame. Your basal ganglia is a more primitive and unconscious brain region responsible for storing habits, routines, and automatic responses. When behaviours, such as driving a car and brushing our teeth, become embedded in the more unconscious basal ganglia region we are freed up to use more conscious and higher order cognitive functions which live in the pre-frontal cortex.

But what happens when our habits aren’t good for us? The only way for us to change a bad habit is for the prefrontal cortex – or thinking part of the brain – to override the activity in the basal ganglia.

To do this researchers have found that self-affirmation is the key. When we are kind to ourselves our brains release the chemical serotonin which is essential for proper functioning of the pre-frontal cortex. What does all this mean?  By spending time reflecting on qualities you like about yourself your brain is better prepared to kick the nasty habit in favour of a healthier one.

6. Research indicates that each of us have certain cornerstone habits – if we get that habit going it helps us build positive habits in other parts of our life
Try to identify what could be your cornerstone habits. Set just one of these as your New Year’s resolution. Make it a tiny habit if that helps.

Given that New Year’s resolutions and habits are all about willpower, anything we can do to build willpower is a bonus. Research suggests that the number one way to build willpower is to have a disciplined physical exercise regime. So, how about picking up that bike you used to ride or that tennis racket that’s been gathering dust in the cupboard?

7. Set tiny goals
Often we fail because we are too ambitious and set resolutions that become daunting and not achievable – think ‘get into better shape’, ‘be a better parent, partner and friend.’ The trick is turning your grand resolution into a set of achievable goals and creating an environment to help support you. It is easier to change your environment than it is to change your behaviour – it’s easier to not buy the potato chips than resist them when they are staring at you from the pantry.

8. Surround yourself with a good social network – a well-researched link exists between social support and stress, with increased support related to lower blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels
What does this mean? Your social network has a huge impact on your behaviour. Leverage this network to help keep you on track or at the very least assist you to reduce any stress and anxiety you might have about reaching your goals.

9. You will fail
That’s OK. None of us are perfect and on occasion, life will get in the way of our goals. When this happens, don’t use it as an excuse to abandon all that good intent. Get back up on that horse and start again. Some research indicates that we usually fail between seven and twelve times before we finally achieve a goal.

10. Honour your strengths
The final word in this piece should go to Kelly McGonigal. Kelly holds a PhD in psychology and is a lecturer at Stanford University in the field of health psychology. She is the author of the bestselling book, The Willpower Instinct.

Most New Year’s resolutions are based on the assumption that who you are really is inadequate and must be improved through self-discipline, joyless striving and maybe a leftover Christmas miracle.

I invite you to take a different approach this year, one that starts from the recognition that whatever it is you want to be, do, or have, you already have the seeds to make it happen. With a bit of focused energy and self-compassion you can reach your goals.

Instead of vowing to makeover your personality, why not commit to honouring your strengths and values? 

We hope this assists you to set and keep one important resolution in 2015.  Best of luck!

Rob Davidson – Founder and Director of Growth

Jade Hindmarsh – Principal Psychologist