New year, new resolutions. It’s that time again. A recent survey shows that almost 58 per cent of the UK population intended to make a New Year’s resolution in 2023, which is approximately 30 million adults. More than a quarter of these resolutions will be about making more money, personal improvement and losing weight.
But will we succeed? Unfortunately, a survey of over 800 million activities by the app Strava, which tracks people’s physical activity, predicts that most of these resolutions will be abandoned by January 19.
One of the main reasons promises fail before the end of January is because they are vague. They focus on immeasurable qualities like being healthier, happier (without defining what that means), or making more money (without coming up with an amount or a plan).
Vague goals do not give us sufficient direction. If we don’t know exactly where we’re going, it’s hard to know which way to go. It is impossible to know how far we will have to go to reach our goal, what barriers we will have to overcome, and how we will prepare for them.
We also often set ourselves unattainable goals because we want to challenge ourselves. There’s an inherent paradox—dubbed the “effort paradox”—in how much our brains love the idea of effort while actually finding it unpleasant.
We want to believe that we will feel more fulfilled if we challenge ourselves to reach a difficult goal.
Another reason for this is that we experience a disconnection from our future selves – we are biased towards the present. This means that we find it difficult to imagine the difficulties our future selves will face as they try to achieve these resolutions.
We think about the end point that we want now, in the present, but not the process or the journey to get there. With such a narrow focus, it’s easy to visualize this end point as closer than it is when we start working towards it.
The lazy brain
To navigate the world, we form mental shortcuts – create habits. Once these cognitive shortcuts have been wired into place, our brains find it easier to act without much conscious effort or control.
The longer we have had these habits, the more deeply rooted are the cognitive shortcuts behind them.
For example, we may unthinkingly reach for the biscuit jar when we park ourselves in front of the television at night – it becomes a routine. Or we press the snooze button when the alarm goes off in the morning.
Our brains are lazy and want to minimize cognitive load – meaning we repeat what we find comfortable instead of considering many different and new options, which may be more or less comfortable.
It’s simply easier to take these shortcuts that don’t cause much resistance or discomfort. That said, some people are more addicted to habits than others and may find it harder to break them.
However, in order to achieve our decisions, we often need to change these deep-seated habits and change the responsible neural pathways. But as our brain resists this discomfort, we are tempted to return to a more comfortable place. There is a reason why we give up our decisions.
One aspect of this is known as status quo bias. We are more likely to stick with the status quo – our existing mindsets – rather than continuing to change these habits, which takes time and effort.
The more we focus on the goal rather than the incremental steps needed to reach that goal, the more likely we are to find it difficult to change our mindset and create the habits needed to reach it.
It becomes a vicious cycle because the more we get stressed about something, the more likely we are to fall back into a place of comfort, with our cognitive shortcuts.
When we engage in habitual behavior, areas in the back of the brain, to do with automatic behavior, are usually engaged. But to actively change our neural pathways away from such activation, we need to engage multiple areas of the brain—including the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in highly complex cognitive tasks.
A study using neuroimaging revealed that changing our behavior involves coordinated cross-talk between multiple brain regions, including rapid communication between two specific zones in the prefrontal cortex and another nearby structure called the frontal eye field, an area involved in controlling eye movements and visual awareness.
This is enormously more cognitively taxing on our brains, which is why we try to avoid it.
Changing habits requires being aware of the behavioral patterns we have learned over the years and knowing how difficult it is to change them.
And that’s impossible if you’re blinded by visions of the new, perfect you. But to succeed in changing yourself, you need to know the real you.
It’s also helpful to set clear, achievable goals – for example, devoting an extra hour a week to your favorite hobby or banning biscuits only in the evening, perhaps replacing them with a good herbal tea.
Also, we need to appreciate and celebrate the process of achieving our goals. Many of us are more inclined to focus on the negative aspects of the experience, which leads to stress and anxiety. But bad feelings require more attention – this is called negativity bias.
And the more we focus on negative things in our lives, and the negative aspects of ourselves, the more likely we are to feel down while missing the positive things.
The more we focus on the positive aspects of ourselves, the more likely we can change our mindset.
So if you want to change, accept yourself as you are – and understand why. Even if you do, you may even find that you’d rather stick to the “new year, same old me” motto. There is nothing wrong with that.
Pragya Agarwal, Visiting Professor of Social Inequalities and Injustice, Loughborough University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.