Appliance of Science: New Years Resolutions

More than 40% of people do it but less than 8% of them succeed. What am I talking about? New Year’s resolutions.


New Year resolutions have been around a long time. Ancient Romans used to make promises to the God of Janus at the start of each new year.


There are a lot of reasons. They are easy to make but can be very difficult to implicate. Making resolutions leaves us with instant gratification which might be enough to make us relax about the actual application of the plans we so freely made. We also frequently fall into the trap of making too many.

We can get caught in a loop of failure too, making the same (failed) resolutions as last year, in the hope of somehow achieving that goal.


Firstly, make fewer resolutions and keep them simple and achievable. Start with the easiest ones. Being able to tick a box early on in the process will give us an emotional and psychological boost that will increase the likelihood of success at more difficult tasks.


Many of us think that willpower is something we are born with, but studies have confirmed it is something we can be trained in. It is just like a muscle, getting stronger with exercise but overuse can leave it depleted of energy. A good way to develop your willpower is to make your resolutions sequential, so that your resolve and ability to stick at something are strengthened every time you hit a new, achievable target.


Habits have evolutionary benefits making them hard to overcome. Much of our brain is dedicated to habit processes. In order to overcome old habits, the prefrontal cortex (decision making part of the brain) has to override the system.

Bad habits are difficult to break and new habits can be challenging to put into place but there are some helpful options. One is to replace a bad habit with a good one, hijacking the neuronal pathways that are already in place seems like a very sensible plan.

The other thing with habits is that they work well with little cues; finding the cues to your bad habits can allow you break them and using cues to create good habits can help you install new ones.


When it comes to creating successful resolutions and habits it is best to remember to place the right reward at the right place in the process. Breaking tasks down into simple steps can help. Working towards long-term goals can be a lot more challenging. Some very interesting research shows that we use different parts of the brain when thinking about our current self and our future self. In fact, we use the same part of the brain for our future self as we do when thinking about strangers.

A study showed participants were much more likely to keep to resolutions set with long-term rewards after they had seen images of themselves that had been modified to make them look older; they could relate to their future self a lot more positively. An important factor in the success of resolutions is to make them as real to you as possible. Imagine how you will look or feel when you have them.


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