It’s that time of year when we put the empty Champagne bottles into the recycling bin and haul out the resolutions. Unfortunately, these best-laid plans often become waylaid, and before long, we tell ourselves, “Well, maybe next year.”
As a neurosurgeon, I know very well the brain’s role in determining whether resolutions succeed or fail.
Resolutions are typically about habits, and habit formation involves a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. Patterns of signals between neurons in the basal ganglia shift as we perform a new behavior. When we are pleased by the results — whether we’re eating a delicious piece of cake or serving a tennis ball — there’s a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good.
Over time, this association with feeling good can make a behavior almost automatic.
Unfortunately, we often don’t establish the right foundation to allow new, more desirable habits to become automatic. Taking an “all-or-nothing” position can derail our efforts and can result in discouragement when we fail to live up to our high expectations.
We also may be unaware of cues that trigger our behavior. Neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated the power of those cues with a study, wherein 20 participants were given $1.50 for every red object and $0.25 for every green object they saw on a computer screen.
The next day, while their brains were scanned, these same subjects were asked to spot certain shapes on a screen, regardless of color. The participants automatically focused on red objects when they appeared, even though no reward was given this time. As this was happening, dopamine was released into the part of the brain involved in attention; the good feeling from the day before had been retained.
Knowing the cues for our behavior can help guide us to better habits. When trying to lose weight, for example, it may be a good idea to bypass the dessert aisle in a grocery store.
The bottom line: You need to think about your behavior and its context differently if you really want to make a change. Here are four recommendations for giving a new habit staying power:
1. Build in failure
Bumps in the road are normal when changing behavior, so don’t worry if things don’t go exactly as planned. As Stephen Covey, the best-selling author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” tells us, an airplane in flight is off course at least 90% of the time. This doesn’t matter, because the pilot or autopilot computers continually make adjustments to adhere to the overall flight plan and get to the destination on time.
The same principle applies to other goals.
Instead of telling yourself that you must meditate every day, try for five out of seven days a week. If you’re beginning a new exercise regimen, start off with twice a week and then build up from there.
2. Focus on time-based, rather than task-based, activities
I often say to myself: “I’m going to read this chapter,” “I’m going to clean my office,” or “I’m going to clean out the car.” Invariably, I run out of time because I underestimated the amount of work needed to complete the task and, instead, must run to my next commitment. Rather than feeling good that I was being productive, I feel like a failure because I didn’t complete the task.
I’ve found that instead of saying “I’m going to read this chapter,” I tell myself that I’m going to read for 30 minutes. Then even if I don’t finish the chapter, I am able to feel good about completing my task. Chipping away at a big task ultimately leads to success.
By setting a time and completing that commitment, I find I’m more successful in moving in the right direction.
3. Find pockets of underutilized time
Haven’t got time to for your usual workout? It can take 15 minutes to eat a leisurely self-packed lunch bag. So, if you invest five minutes packing your own lunch, you can reward yourself with 45 minutes of free time during your lunch hour to work out or meditate.
If your resolution is to exercise 30 minutes a day, you can rack up those minutes in a lot of ways, like taking a vigorous walk during your lunch hour. A friend of mine who works in a tall building walks up and down 15 flights a few times when he knows he must work late and won’t get to the gym. The opportunities are always there … so be creative!
4. Monitor your progress
Smartphones and smartwatches can be great “assistants” for tracking your progress. And some new apps help you recognize where you waste your time. I’ve found the app Moment has been eye-opening, allowing me to see how much time I spend on social media.
You can also use an alarm to trigger action at a desired time or a stopwatch to time your activity, so you feel more in control of your efforts. If you’re not into using your smartphone for these activities, you can also keep track in a day planner that allows you to compare, at a glance, your performance from week to week.
Of course, there’s nothing magic about January for making resolutions. You can start a new habit any time.
And you shouldn’t be disheartened if you’ve been stuck in a bad habit for many years. As Charles Duhigg wrote in “The Power of Habit,” “Habits are malleable throughout your entire life.”
Mark McLaughlin, MD, practices neurological surgery at Princeton Brain and Spine Care and believes that we can all use the core principles behind brain surgery and apply them to our daily lives. His mission is to use the lessons he has learned from his career to help others manage stressful situations and engage with problem-solving.