Learning Lab

New Year’s Resolutions

By Amy Brann

It’s February. Memories of Christmas may be fading fast but in the New Year some things are undoubtedly still playing on our minds. Whether it’s a touch of guilt about festive over-indulgence or a sense of the significance of the New Year as a new opportunity, there are a number of reasons why many of us think about making New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions are important because give us an opportunity to improve ourselves for our own benefit and for the benefit of those around us.

However, whether we will be able to stick to our resolutions is often concerning and can lead to frustration and disappointment, which become quite demotivating. So if you want to give yourself the best chance of sticking to your resolutions this year, read on for some top tip – all courtesy of neuroscience and psychology research!

1)      Distinguish between goals, objectives and tasks

2)      Use pre-commitment

3)      Help yourself learn new (good) habits

4)      Evaluate, adapt and re-evaluate

Goals, objectives, strategy, tasks

All of us have goals, the things that we want, and we use actions to achieve our goals and get what we want. Unfortunately, many of our goals involve such a long series of steps that it is easy to lose sight of what our ultimate goals are. For example, I might decide that I want to start going to the gym three times a week. To do this I need to sign up to the gym and buy gym clothes and find time to go. Ultimately though my goal is to be healthier. If I’m not clear about this from the start I might then realise that I don’t find the gym fun and stop going pretty quickly. I need to remember that there was a bigger reason for setting myself that target that really matters to me. The hierarchy of goal – objective – strategy – task is helpful to organize thoughts and we should be able to fill this in for all of our resolutions.

Pre-commitment

Pre-commitment is a powerful tool that our brain uses to trick itself into doing things that we won’t enjoy (at least in the short-term). A nice example of some research around pre-commitment and procrastination comes from the work of Ariely and Wertenbroch (Click Here For More Information). Essentially the research tells us that we naturally avoid things that we think will be unpleasant unless we somehow commit ourselves in advance to doing them at a particular time. For example, I might not want to go to the gym because it will be an intense and tiring experience. However, if I write a specific day and time in my calendar to go and tell all my friends I can’t see them that evening because I’ll be at the gym, I’ve then committed myself to being there. When the time comes it will feel much more difficult to avoid going! A highlight of 2013 for the concept of pre-commitment was some research comparing it very favourably to will power: (Click Here)

Habits

We don’t just passively pick up habits from the environment – we can help ourselves establish habits to feed into our goals. Neuroscience research tells us that habits can evolve out of repetition. When we construct our routines for each day or each week, we ensure that the same activities are repeated in a similar sequence. Over a number of days or weeks this repetition of the same activities can turn activities that we initially had to plan for and think about into second-nature habits. This useful because it frees up brain power for us to think about other things.

Evaluation and adaptation

Our brain is full of circuits that are set up to compare our goals with the reality of our current situation. These circuits ensure a continuous evaluative process. When dealing with simple goals and actions like reaching out our hand to grab a chocolate bar, our brain is very good at automatically continually correcting our hand position relative to the chocolate. That is why it is so easy to reach out to hold things without thinking about it. With more complex behaviour patterns, however, evaluation of progress may require more conscious effort of self-reflections. There are specific bits of our pre-frontal cortex that carry out this high-level self-reflection. Unfortunately this is a highly complex function for the brain – it isn’t all that good at analysing and understanding itself. It’s really important to give these bits of our brain as much of a chance as possible to work out whether we’re on track by concentrating regularly on our progress. If we’re not doing as well as we’d like the most important thing is to then think about why and what we could do to overcome any barriers to achieving our goals. Sometimes the problem might be that our objectives were too ambitious in the first place and it’s important to consider this too.

Suggested top ten tips

To round off, here is an expanded list of ten top tips that suggest practical ways of applying the principles we’ve discussed above. These are just examples of things you might like to try. Hopefully you can see where each of these fits into our 4 principles listed above.

1)      Be clear about what you ultimately want to achieve – why are you setting that resolution?

2)      Make your targets SMART targets (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound)

3)      Write them down and read them back to yourself every day

4)      Tell other people what your resolutions are

5)      Think about the possible barriers to achieving your goals and write these down (and how you might overcome)

6)      Establish a routine involving your resolutions as part of your day or week

7)      Try to make sure that you can follow this routine for at least a few weeks

8)      Review your progress

9)      If you’re not making as much progress as you’d like don’t let it get you down. Instead, think about why and write it down. Think about ways you can get around the things holding you back.

10)   Modifying your goals is allowed! Ideally everything goes well and you achieve your goals and they become habits. If not, instead of giving up and getting down, revisit your ultimate goals and come up with more realistic specific targets towards that.

You May Also Like…