Our brains are not designed to stick to New Year’s resolutions. Here’s what you can do about it: ScienceAlert

Our brains are not designed to stick to New Year’s resolutions.  Here’s what you can do about it: ScienceAlert

New year, new resolutions. It’s that time again. A recent survey shows that almost 58 per cent of the UK population intends to make a New Year’s resolution in 2023, which is the equivalent of around 30 million adults. More than a quarter of these resolutions are about making more money, personal improvement, and losing weight.

But will we make it? Unfortunately, a survey of over 800 million activities by the Strava app, 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 that they are vague. They focus on immeasurable qualities like being healthier, happier (without defining what that means) or making more money (without developing an amount or plan).

Vague goals do not give us sufficient direction. If we do not know exactly where we are going, it is difficult to know which path to take. It is impossible to know how far we must go to reach our goal, what obstacles we must overcome and how to prepare for them.

We also often set unattainable goals because we want to challenge ourselves. There is an inherent paradox – called the “exertion paradox” – in how much our brain loves the idea of ​​exertion when in fact it finds it unpleasant.

We like to believe that when we challenge ourselves to achieve a difficult goal, we feel more fulfilled.

Another reason is that we experience a disconnect from our future selves – we are biased towards the present. This means that we have a hard time imagining the difficulties our future selves will encounter as we try to achieve those resolutions.

We think of the end point we want now, in the present, but not the process or journey to get there. With such a narrow focus, it’s easy to envision that end point closer than when we start working toward it.

The lazy brain

To navigate the world, we form mental shortcuts – create habits. When these cognitive connections are hardwired, our brains find it easier to act without much conscious effort or control.

The longer we have these habits, the more ingrained are the cognitive shortcuts behind them.

For example, we might thoughtlessly reach for the cookie jar when we stand in front of the television at night – it becomes routine. Or we press the snooze button when the alarm clock rings in the morning.

Our brains are lazy and want to minimize cognitive load – which means we repeat what we find pleasurable, rather than considering many different and new options that may be more or less pleasurable.

It’s just easier to take those shortcuts that don’t offer much resistance or discomfort. However, some people rely on habits more than others, and they may have a harder time breaking them.

In order to achieve our resolutions, however, we often have to change these deep-seated habits and alter the neural pathways responsible for them. But as our brains resist this discomfort, we are tempted to return to a more comfortable place. That’s one reason we give up on our resolutions.

One aspect of this is known as status quo bias. We’re more likely to stick with the status quo—our existing ways of thinking—rather than insisting on changing those habits, which takes time and effort.

The more we focus on the goal, rather than the incremental steps required to reach that goal, the more likely it will be difficult for us to change our mindset and develop the habits needed to achieve it.

It becomes a vicious cycle because the more we stress 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 related to automatic behavior are typically engaged. But to actively shift our neural pathways away from such activation, we need to involve multiple areas of the brain — including the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in highly complex cognitive tasks.

A study using neuroimaging found that changing our behavior involves coordinated crosstalk between multiple brain regions, including rapid communication between two specific zones within the prefrontal cortex and another nearby structure called the frontal eye field, an area that is at involved in the control of eye movements and visual awareness.

It’s a lot more cognitively taxing on our brains, so we try to avoid it.

Better Approaches

In order to change habits, we need to be aware of the behavior patterns we’ve learned over the years and how difficult it is to change them.

And that’s impossible when you’re blinded by visions of the new, perfect you. But to successfully transform yourself, you need to know the real you.

It is also helpful to set clear, achievable goals – for example, to devote an extra hour per week to your favorite hobby or to only ban cookies in the evening and perhaps replace them with a nice herbal tea.

In addition, we must value and celebrate the process of achieving our goals. Many of us are more inclined to focus on the negative aspects of the experience, leading to stress and anxiety. But bad emotions 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 are to be able to change the way we think.

So if you want to change, accept yourself as you are – and understand why. If you do, you might even find that you’d rather stick with the “new year, same old me” motto. Nothing wrong with that.The conversation

Pragya Agarwal, Visiting Professor of Social Inequalities and Injustice, Loughborough University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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