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Discover: Using science to hack your brain and keep your New Year's resolutions

While many New Year’s Resolutions fail, these evidence-based tips can help you succeed at yours
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While millions of people around the world set goals for the new year, very few successfully achieve them. Science has some evidence-based tips to help you stick to your goals in 2020.

We are more likely to tackle new goals when a significant milestone passes, such as the outset of a new week, month, or year. This is called the Fresh Start Effect. Just as physical landmarks mark distances along a road trip, temporal landmarks mark the passage of time. These timely landmarks serve as mental “accounting periods,” encouraging us to take a big-picture view of our lives. 

When we look back at the past year, we are motivated to improve ourselves and pursue new aspirational behaviours. These goals often take shape in the form of New Year’s Resolutions.

The idea of starting fresh and setting goals is nothing new. Catholic confession provides sinners with forgiveness and a fresh start. Many religions have ceremonies that symbolize new beginnings. A metaphorical phoenix rises from the ashes as a symbol of rebirth. For centuries, people have shared the belief that we have opportunities to start fresh with a clean slate. New Year's Resolutions are just one example of that. 

Despite their historical and spiritual longevity, resolutions — let’s face it — have become the butt of many jokes in early January.

Dedicated gym-goers complain about the rush of “resolutioners” using the gym every January, only to taper off as the weeks roll by. Google searches for diets, gym visits, and goal-setting increase as a new year dawns. Many of us, reflecting on a less-than-ideal 2019, may strive to become a completely different person in 2020. New year, new me. 

Setting vague, lofty goals can set you up for failure. Many New Year's resolutions fail if not done right. With the help of psychology and neuroscience, yours don’t have to. Here are some evidence-based tips to make your New Year's Resolutions more successful.

Take Advantage of the Fresh Start Effect

It’s easy to avoid making New Year's Resolutions because they seemed doomed to fail. However, people who set resolutions are far more likely to achieve that goal (46 per cent) compared to non-resolutioners (four per cent). So don’t miss out. Take advantage of this fresh start.

Seize this opportunity to reflect on the past year. Journaling is a useful tool for reflection and self-discovery. With a quick Google search, you can find free journaling prompt to use a jumping-off point when choosing which goals to set. Identifying specific goals is the first step to achieving them.

Hack Your Habits

Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit is a gold mine of habit-building tips. The book describes the “Habit Loop”: cue, routine, reward. Each habit starts with a cue. A location, time during the day, or an emotional state can trigger a habit or craving. 

For example, as if on cue, every day at 3 p.m., you might get up from your desk to buy a sugary snack. A routine follows the cue. Once your 3 p.m. craving hits, you walk over to the vending machine in your office and purchase a sugar snack. On your way back, you usually have a friendly chat with your desk neighbour. 

The final (and most important) step of the habit loop is the reward. The reward is why you are doing the habit in the first place. You get a rush of sugar from eating your snack. You are no longer hungry. You had a refreshing break from the mundane tasks of the day. You exchanged stories with your friendly coworker.

To “hack” your habits, you must study them closely. Ask yourself, what reward you are actually craving? Are you hungry, bored, or in need of a friendly conversation? 

To figure out what reward you are craving, try out some new habits. Instead of reaching for the sugary snack, try eating an apple instead. Try skipping the 3 p.m. snack and replace it with a walk or a chat with your coworker. 

Trying out new routines will help you realize what reward you are seeking. If you are hungry, consider packing a larger lunch to avoid that afternoon sugar craving. If you crave social interaction, have a brief chat with your coworker instead. Find a healthier habit to satisfy that reward.

Now that you know your new routine and reward, set up an appropriate cue. Place a sticky note on your office door to remind you to skip the vending machine snack. Ask your coworker to drop by your office at 3 p.m. for a quick catch-up. To cue going to the gym, pack your gym bag and place it beside your door. A new cue will trigger your new, more beneficial routine. Once you complete the routine, you will receive the reward to reinforce your new habit.

Understanding how your brain craves rewards can help you “rewire” it with more beneficial habits. Start by tracking your urges and figuring out why you’re sticking to those old habits. Once you change the cue, you can start building that new habit.

Put it in Your Calendar

A common reason for not sticking to New Year's Resolutions is “not having enough time.” 

Time is not just the number of hours available to us; it depends on our priorities. In his 1957 book, "Parkinson's Law and Other Studies in Administration," CN Parkinson outlines Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you have until Friday to finish a project, you will likely take until Friday to complete it. If your boss extends the deadline to the following Monday, you will keep working on it until Monday. A task takes as much time as you give it. 

When setting goals, use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage. Set early, tangible deadlines. Carve out daily and weekly time slots to complete your goals. Instead of vaguely resolving to “get fit” in January, commit to attending three Pilates classes a week. Buy a membership for the Pilates studio, mark the classes in your calendar, and arrange for a family member to pick up the kids on days you are at Pilates

If you want to make time for a morning run, set your alarm an hour earlier than usual. If you are planning on renovating your home, schedule errands to pick up materials and put a renovation date in your calendar. If it’s not on your schedule, you probably won’t do it. So, put it on your schedule.

Stay Accountable

In January, you seized the Fresh Start effect and set your goals. By March, you have not been to the gym in weeks, have fallen off your diet, and are staying up late again with the TV remote in hand. You can prevent these mid-year slumps by setting up check-ins throughout the year. 

Schedule monthly or quarterly “fresh starts” where you reflect on your goals and see how far you are to achieving them. If you’re behind on your goals, mid-year check-ins allow you rearrange your life to keep moving towards them.

If you are looking for more resources, gaining inspiration from books and online resources can help you take that leap. MuchelleB suggests evidence-based tools to improve your life and The Power of Habit book (linked above) is the ultimate resource for habit-building. While diving into these resources can be helpful, be aware that just reading a book alone won’t kickstart your goals. You have to take those steps yourself. 

So what are you waiting for? Set your goals, “hack” your brain’s reward system, schedule time in your calendar, and stay accountable throughout the year.

Ive Velikova is a science communication student at Laurentian University and the host of the Science Sucks podcast. You can find the podcast on Stitcher and other podcast sites.


Sources

Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60(10), 2563-2582.

Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House.

Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self?reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397-405.

Parkinson, C. N., & Osborn, R. C. (1957). Parkinson's law, and other studies in administration (Vol. 24). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.




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