By Heidi Runia
We begin each new year resolving to do (or quit doing) something — and we expect that resolution to be the game-changer we need in our lives. For many, the resolution is to work out, lose weight, or cut out carbs and sweets. For some, it’s a promise to save more money or get finances on track. Others may commit to quitting a bad or unhealthy habit, like smoking.
Though many of us participate in New Year’s Resolutions, there’s a common stigma around them. We all hear jokes about how they just don’t stick — but the truth is, they can. We’re going to explore the psychological reasons behind what makes resolutions hard to follow, and how to set yourself up to master them this year.
According to Columbia University neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, regardless of what you resolve to do, there is a way to set yourself up for failure or success. It’s all about your frame of mind. The mindset you’re in when deciding on a resolution determines its “stickiness.” Below, Dr. Hafeez shares key insights on how to make New Year’s Resolutions that stick.
- Envision the end result and reverse-engineer it.
According to Dr. Hafeez, neural pathways in the brain can be changed through a combination of visualization and aligned action. That’s right: You have the power to “rewire” your brain to orient yourself toward achieving your goals. Our brains are dynamic, not fixed. This is the meaning of “neuroplasticity.”
Hafeez encourages people to work on their neural pathways by journaling about what it is they want to achieve. Write it all out.
“How would life improve? What would all the benefits be? Cut pictures out of magazines of what you want and post them to a wall (or, if appropriate, the refrigerator). Get very clear on what you think you will feel like once you see results,” she recommends.
These actions help you visualize what it is you’re working toward. They offer a glimpse into the version of yourself you’d like to be.
- Get clear on your triggers.
Set yourself up for success by understanding what may potentially get you off track. Then, work on those neural pathways by taking actions that align with your goal, like reorienting your environment or routine to keep those triggers at bay.
“Sticky resolutions come with planning. If you want to lose weight, then begin with clearing out your fridge and cupboards of junk food. That in itself is an action that will tell your brain that you are serious. Get recipes and write out a new grocery shopping list. Writing plans, micro-goals, and ideas that serve the greater accomplishment you’re reaching for create ‘buy-in’ from your brain,” says Hafeez.
For the people resolving to save more money, Dr. Hafeez says to evaluate when and why you spend. If you notice you spend $40 a week on coffee, think of alternatives. Give yourself an opportunity to be a creative problem solver in your own day-to-day. Make incremental changes to your routine that support your end goals.
“You don’t want to cut yourself off from anything cold-turkey. The brain doesn’t respond well to deprivation. It sends brain chemicals that signal displeasure which is what makes resolutions lose their stickiness. Shift to a possibility or curiosity mindset. Asking yourself ‘What can I do to save $5 per day?’ invites in inspired thoughts and creative ideas,” explains Hafeez.
- Pace yourself.
“The reason why resolutions don’t stick is because people set the bar way too high and expect achievement way too fast. Think of every week as a win! Break it down into weekly chunks and train the brain to value quick accomplishments,” she advises.
The people who resolve to lose weight and get more exercise won’t stick to it if they don’t celebrate small milestones, or try to do too much too soon. If you set goals that are unachievable, you’ll grow discouraged and view every missed goal as a major setback. This feeds the temptation to completely tap out on your resolution.
Instead, set small, realistic goals for yourself that reorient you toward choices that secure long-term change. And don’t forget to celebrate each and every small win. Seriously — smiling and saying to yourself, out loud, “I did it!” or “I’m doing a great job!” reinforces those neural pathways that teach your brain you want to, and can, master your goals.
For example, instead of deciding you’ll lose 5 pounds a week, resolve to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. Do this through smart, incremental changes. Start by cutting out alcohol, soft drinks, and juices and drinking water instead. Then, start adapting your meal plan to healthier options. Add in a brisk walk each morning. After 10 weeks, you’ll be 10-20 pounds lighter with great skin just because you did one thing week by week until it became your new normal.
- Trick your brain by making it fun.
Like we mentioned above: Changing neural pathways is about visualization and aligned actions. One important aligned action is telling yourself what you need to hear — reminding yourself, whether out loud or through journaling, that you enjoy the things you need to do to achieve your goals. Think positive and talk positive about each step of the journey, and pair things you may be oriented to dislike with things you know you love to start changing the narrative of the experience.
“Our language and self-talk is everything and determines if our resolution will fade or will become something we’re still doing in June,” says Dr. Hafeez. “When someone resolves to change their diet, exercise and lose weight, they already envision how difficult it is going to be, so they are already dreading it before they start. However, shifting the brain to doing something fun that is in line with the goal gets you more committed,” she adds.
Create a workout playlist packed with great music that you love. Look up healthier versions of your favorite recipes on Pinterest. Invite a friend you always have fun with to join you for a weekly walk. When you do the advance preparation and planning that is more fun, and take small steps toward building a new lifestyle to support your resolution, you’re setting yourself up for a win.
- Fuel your resolution with a greater purpose worth committing to.
If you want to resolve to save more money, it’s helpful to have a clear purpose for the money you plan to save. Resolving to just “save more money” is vague, making it hard to do the visualization portion of setting yourself up for success. Saving more money to take an amazing vacation, or to purchase a home or car, or to donate to an organization you care about, are tangible goals you can stick to more easily. Plus, these offer the opportunity for you to set concrete parameters, like a dollar amount broken down into weekly goals, that allow you to make those incremental lifestyle changes that lead to long-term behavioral change.
“It’s common for people to commit to doing something when they connect it to a greater purpose beyond them or an experience they want to have. This explains why lifetime smokers can instantly quit when they learn they are pregnant. It’s not about them anymore. We see the man who is 75 pounds overweight lose weight when his daughter gets engaged. Whenever we can connect resolutions to a bigger purpose our minds get on board, and when the mind is all in, resolutions stick,” explains Dr. Hafeez.
Time to Get to Work
Your brain is a powerful tool that can help you achieve your goals. Don’t forget that it’s well within your power to reshape that tool to serve you. Take control of those neural pathways. Time to get out there and master those New Year’s Resolutions!
About the Author:
Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD is an NYC based licensed clinical psychologist, teaching faculty member at the prestigious Columbia University Teachers College and the founder and Clinical Director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. a neuropsychological, developmental, and educational center in Manhattan and Queens. Dr. Hafeez often shares her credible expertise to various news outlets in New York City and frequently appears on CNN and Dr. Oz. Connect with her via Twitter @comprehendMind or www.comprehendthemind.com