How to Succeed with Your New Year’s Resolutions

Backpacking across bridge over lakeMany of us have decided to change something about ourselves or our lives at some point. We realize we are not satisfied with our weight, our habits, our job, or our relationships and something has to change. Sometimes we know what that “something” is and other times we don’t, but we do know how uncomfortable the status quo has become once the desire for change sets in.

For some, this urge hits as we head into January in the form of New Year’s resolutions, which are typically designed to exchange bad habits for better ones or to create new, desirable ones. Most resolutions quickly go by the wayside, though.

Whether we stick to our resolutions has more to do with the brain’s wiring than it does with willpower, and that is both good news and bad news.

The good news is we can change our minds and lives, at any age or stage. The bad news is it takes time for new habits to get hardwired into the brain, and until they do, there is a tremendous pull backward toward the old pattern. Unless we understand what is going on and what we can do about it, it can feel like we are doomed to fail at change.

The human brain thrives on efficiency. The more it can put on “autopilot,” the better. Nearly all of our habitual behavior, from what we do when we wake up to how we spend our leisure time, is on autopilot. Most of our behaviors are the same from one day to the next, day after day, year after year. When it comes to our lifestyle and habits, the conscious mind is rarely involved after a behavior has become habitual. After a while, it can feel as if change is no longer possible, and we may tell ourselves “that’s just how I am.”

In order to create and sustain change, we need to make our behavior conscious and deliberate again, and we need to sustain the new behavior long enough for the brain to rewire. Once a behavior has been etched into the brain’s wiring, in what is called a neural pathway, we are no longer choosing our behavior; it just seems to happen automatically. This process takes about six weeks, sometimes longer. If we give up on our New Year’s resolutions within a couple of weeks, we haven’t practiced long enough for the brain’s efficiency system to help us out. If we stick with the new behavior for a minimum of six weeks, eventually the new behavior will become the one on our brain’s default setting.

Here are five tips for making it easier to succeed with your New Year’s resolutions:

  1. Start small. Don’t try to overhaul your entire life at once. Choose one habit or behavior you want to change and set a realistic and achievable goal.
  2. Monitor your progress. Keep track of your efforts and your results. Even though you are tempted to leave the days when you didn’t practice your new behavior off of the chart, include them anyway. Perfectionism is the enemy of genuine, lasting change, so just expect there will be setbacks. It’s all part of the process.
  3. Reward yourself for consistency. If you are trying to exercise four times a week, give yourself a reward for each week you do so. Once you reach the six-week mark, when new neural pathways start to form, it should become a bit easier to sustain your efforts.
  4. Affirm your desire to change out loud. Remind yourself of your new behavioral goal verbally and tell yourself you are successful at maintaining it. Simply stating to yourself each day or writing in your journal “I am a healthy person,” “I am at my goal weight,” or “I enjoy my daily exercise routine” can help solidify the new neural pathways that support your new habit.
  5. Practice self-compassion and a sense of humor. Change is difficult, and we only make it harder on ourselves when we treat ourselves harshly. In order to not only reach our goals but also create genuine, lasting change, we need to be able to accept that growth is not always linear. It often includes plateaus and setbacks along the way.

If you just aren’t making any headway, and have been working at habit change for at least six weeks, it may be time to get some guidance and feedback from a qualified therapist or life coach who can help you determine what might be standing in your way.

References:

  1. Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY. Random House.
  2. McKay, M., & Harp, D. (2005). Neural Path Therapy: How to Change Your Brain’s Response to Anger, Fear, Pain and Desire. Oakland, California. New Harbinger Publications.

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  • 11 comments
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  • Ann

    Ann

    January 12th, 2016 at 8:40 AM

    I always have all of these grand plans for the resolutions I would like to achieve in the new year and then,,, well, those have all disappeared y like right now?
    So Maybe I can start over with this list and make it a clean s late. Maybe come up with some things that are a little more manageable and achievable.

  • Sondra

    Sondra

    January 12th, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    Truthfully I think that they just make us feel even worse than we intend for them to.
    Just resolve to lead a happier and healthier life, that encompasses just about everything and then move on.

  • Logan

    Logan

    January 12th, 2016 at 2:42 PM

    Used to have all of these huge lofty ideas, never succeeded, cut them into smaller and more manageable chunks, and now I am doing better than ever.
    Of course I don’t wait til Jan 1 to make these little changes, I do them all throughout the year, but hey, it works for me

  • Diann Wingert

    Diann Wingert

    January 12th, 2016 at 5:40 PM

    Thanks to Ann, Sondra and Logan for your comments. Changing our personal habits for the better, whether we do it in January or not, is a matter of what work for us. I highly recommend learning more about how habits are created and changed. Charles Duhigg’s book, referenced in this post, The Power of Habit is really helpful in this area.

  • miranda

    miranda

    January 13th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    If it is doing something for you
    and you know that you really want it
    then you will do what needs to be done
    to make it a success

  • Abbie

    Abbie

    January 13th, 2016 at 3:00 PM

    Don’t make one?

  • Alice

    Alice

    January 14th, 2016 at 10:32 AM

    I am the most successful when I hold myself accountable by writing things down and journaling. I write down what I eat, when I do, when I workout, and then all of the conflicting feelings that I have about this whole weight loss process. Some people may not necessarily need this kind of release but for me it is pretty therapeutic. I am hoping that one day when I beat this that I will be able to look back on this journey with fondness as well as pride in doing it successfully.

  • laney

    laney

    January 14th, 2016 at 4:07 PM

    This is your year
    to make great things happen

  • Seth

    Seth

    January 16th, 2016 at 5:09 AM

    I have already tried and failed lol, and started back over again! So much for making them stick for me!

  • Diann Wingert, LCSW

    Diann Wingert, LCSW

    January 16th, 2016 at 8:43 PM

    Alice, Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your strategy sounds like one that has a great chance of success. The more we reinforce the habit we are trying to create, the more we give our brain the message that this is a behavior pattern that should be assigned a neural pathway and switched to our “auto pilot” settings ! Diann

  • Diann Wingert, LCSW

    Diann Wingert, LCSW

    January 16th, 2016 at 8:50 PM

    Seth, Thanks for writing. Is it possible that you have tried but not actually failed ? Perhaps you just needed to set up the new behavior in a way that gives it the optimal opportunity to succeed. One suggestion is to pair the desired new habit with a habit you have already successfully established. Another idea is to build in a reward such as being more active during the work day by taking a walk at lunch time, coupled with inviting co workers to walk with you as a social reward. Even if you have “failed” time and time again, you will eventually find the best path to habit change for you, as long as you don’t give up. Diann

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