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

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

Our brains are not wired to stick to New Year’s resolutions.  Here’s what to 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 intended to make a New Year’s resolution in 2023, or around 30 million adults. More than a quarter of these resolutions will be about making more money, personal improvement, and weight loss.

But will we succeed? Unfortunately, a study 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 why 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 coming up with a quota or plan).

Vague goals don’t give us enough direction. If we don’t know exactly where we’re going, it’s hard for us to know which road to take. It is impossible to predict how far we will have to go to reach our destination, what barriers we will have to overcome and how to prepare for them.

We also often set ourselves unattainable goals because we want to challenge ourselves. There is an inherent paradox – dubbed the “paradox of effort” – that is how much our brains love the idea of ​​effort when in fact it is uncomfortable.

We like to think that we will feel more fulfilled if we challenge ourselves to achieve a difficult goal.

Another reason is that we experience disconnection from our future self – we are focused on the present. This means that it is difficult for us to imagine the difficulties we will face in the future in trying to achieve these resolutions.

We think about the end point we want now, in the present, but not the process or the way to get there. With such a narrow focus, it’s easy to imagine this end point as closer than what it is when we start working towards it.

Lazy brain

To move around the world, we create mental shortcuts – creating habits. When these cognitive shortcuts are made permanent, our brains work more easily without much conscious effort or control.

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

For example, we may mindlessly reach for a jar of biscuits when we park in front of the TV in the evening – it becomes a routine. Or we hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off in the morning.

Our brains are lazy and want to minimize cognitive load – which means we repeat what we enjoy instead of considering many different and new options that may be more or less enjoyable.

It’s just easier to choose those shortcuts that don’t offer much resistance or discomfort. That said, some people rely more on habits than others and may find it harder to break them.

However, in order to achieve our resolutions, we often need to change these deep-rooted habits and change the neural pathways responsible for them. But because our brains resist this discomfort, we are tempted to return to a more comfortable place. This is the reason why we give up our resolutions.

An aspect of this is known as status quo bias. We are more likely to stay with the status quo – our current mindset – than persistently change these habits, which takes time and effort.

The more we focus on the goal rather than the steps needed to achieve it, the more likely it is that we will find it difficult to change the way we think and develop the habits needed to achieve it.

This becomes a vicious circle because the more stressed we become about something, the more likely we are to return to a comfortable place with our cognitive shortcuts.

When we engage in habitual behavior, the areas at the back of the brain that are associated with automatic behavior are usually involved. But in order to actively alter our neural pathways to avoid such activation, we need to engage several areas of the brain – including the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in very complex cognitive tasks.

A neuroimaging study revealed that changing our behavior requires coordinated communication between several areas of the brain, including rapid communication between two specific zones in the prefrontal cortex and another nearby structure called the anterior eye field, an area involved in controlling eye movements and visual awareness.

This is much more cognitively burdensome for our brain, so we try to avoid it.

A better approach

Changing habits requires being aware of the patterns of behavior that 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 a new, perfect you. But to be successful in changing yourself, you need to know your true self.

It’s also helpful to set yourself clear, achievable goals, such as dedicating an extra hour a week to your favorite hobby, or banning cookies only in the evenings, perhaps replacing them with a delicious, herbal tea.

Moreover, we must recognize and celebrate the process of achieving our goals. Many of us are more likely to focus on the negative aspects of the experience, which leads to stress and anxiety. But bad emotions require more attention – this is called negative bias.

And the more we focus on the negative things in our lives and the negative aspects of ourselves, the more likely we are to feel depressed, missing the positive things.

The more we focus on the positive aspects of ourselves, the more likely we are to be able to change our attitude.

So if you want to change, accept yourself the way you are – and understand why. Although if you do, you might even find yourself preferring to stick to the motto “new year, same old me”. There’s nothing wrong with it.Conversation

Pragya Agarwal, Visiting Professor of Social Inequality and Injustice at Loughborough University

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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