More than half of Americans, reportedly, make New Year’s resolutions. And 88 percent of those resolutions end in failure, according to a study by British psychologist Richard Wiseman.
There is a scientific reason for this fail rate that once we understand, we’ll be able to keep our resolutions long enough to make them stick.
The bottom line is that our brains cannot handle New Year’s resolutions. No seriously. It has to do with willpower and our brains’ cells that operate that particular mental function.
The human brain is divided up into sections—each one handling different aspects of brain function. The pre-frontal cortex (the part located at the front behind your forehead) is assigned the tasks of 1) staying focused 2) handling short-term memory 3) solving abstract tasks and 4) willpower.
Here’s the problem: That part of your brain cannot handle all of those things at the same time. It requires a huge amount of focus and willpower to change a learned behavior overnight, which is what a New Year’s resolution demands.
Bad habits are hard to break—and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once. The focus and willpower required are just too much for the human brain. It simply cannot deliver.
The human pre-frontal cortex is like a muscle. It has to be trained. If you joined a local gym, you would never dream of starting out lifting a 300-pound barbell on your first session. You’d start with a 2-pound weight for a 2-minute session, working up slowly to heavier weights and longer periods of endurance.
Trying to keep a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking or lose a bunch of weight, is expecting your pre-frontal cortex to pick up the equivalent of a 300-pound barbell on the first attempt—and to keep doing it for hours on end. It’s just not possible.
Typically, New Year’s resolutions go something like this: I am going to lose 20 pounds; I’m going to get out of debt, stop smoking, get organized, give up sugar, or run two miles a day. Does anything there sound at all familiar? Those are abstract goals that your brain cannot handle. They are too vague.
Here’s the secret for how to make your New Year’s resolution stick, according to B.J. Fogg, Ph.D., director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University: Make the resolution a habit first. And break it down to a tiny habit to start.
Strong willpower is not a character trait. Accept it. And don’t make the mistake of dumping the idea of making a New Year’s resolution. Just don’t depend on willpower.
Instead, depend on these four steps to make your New Year’s resolution stick:
Step 1: Pick only one resolution. Your brain cannot handle more than one. Accept it. Analyze everything you’ve thought about to change and pick the one thing that’s most important to you.
Step 2: Take baby steps. Make it tiny, even ridiculously so. A good tiny behavior is easy to do and fast. Think: walk for three minutes, or do two pushups. Floss one tooth. Any of those actions may sound useless, but this is the way to get started. Your brain will thank you by suggesting in due time that you increase that to a four-minute walk or that you floss two teeth.
Step 3: Become accountable. Write down what you want to change. That makes you more likely to succeed with your new habit, and increases your overall happiness as well. Tell others. Social support is beneficial. So is accountability.
Step 4: Give yourself positive feedback. Or seek that from your accountability group. Reward yourself with things that make you feel great. Positive feedback will increase your success rate and strengthen your desire to keep going by taking on another baby step. And another and another all the way to permanent and glorious change!