How to trick your brain into keeping a New Year’s resolution

Written by | Health

Breaking New Year’s resolutions is so time-honored a tradition that companies can actually stake their business model on it. Gyms like Planet Fitness depend on thousands joining up at the beginning of the year, only to fail on the follow-through. They sign up about 6,500 people per location despite the fact that each one can only accommodate about 300, relying on the low cost of membership to convince people that at $10 a month, you shouldn’t cancel—you’ll definitely start going next week.

But you probably won’t. Getting fit and losing weight are the two most common New Year’s resolutions, and both depend on making daily changes to your life. That means interrupting your normal habits and exchanging them for new ones. Unfortunately, humans are terrible at doing both of those things.

Ironically, though, it’s hard to change habits precisely because our brains are so good at becoming habituated. We’re hardwired to automate processes. It’s how you can find yourself at work without having to think about getting there, or why you reach for the patch of wall where the lightswitch is in your own bathroom when you stumble into a hotel’s commode. It’s also why most new diets and exercise plans fail. Once a habit is automatic, it’s extraordinarily difficult to change it.

But you can harness that propensity to form habits. Let’s take a popular resolution—wanting to get in shape—and walk through how to accomplish that goal by applying what we know about the brain.

Quantify it, then break it down
What to do

Step one is to revise our goal from “get in shape” to something concrete that can break down into smaller, more achievable bits. Pick one identifiable thing that you want to be able to do by the end of December 2018. Run five miles. Do ten pull-ups. Squat your bodyweight. It should be lofty, yes, but realistic. Then break it down.

Take squatting as an example. Assuming that you already know how to do a weighted back squat (if not, get a personal trainer or at least head to YouTube), you’ll need to hit the gym 3-4 times per week to get up to your bodyweight. You’ll also need to take in enough protein to fuel the requisite muscle growth, which should be about one gram per pound of body weight. We can shorthand the protein requirement by drinking a protein shake. Daily habits will become ingrained the fastest, so let’s say on top of the shake you’ll either go to the gym or take a long walk every weekday.

Why you should do it

Abstract goals make the worst resolutions. Your brain may excel at coming up with them, but it’s bad at accomplishing them. It’s easy to keep mindlessly moving through your daily grind, so you’ll likely keep forgetting to “learn something new” or “eat healthier.”

Even if you manage to follow those directives, it’s hard to feel like you really accomplished something when a goal is so abstract. And without that sense of accomplishment, you won’t be motivated to continue repeating the action.

The way to experience that motivation is to involve your brain’s reward circuits. Positive feedback is like a drug to your neurons. In fact, positive feedback is kind of how you get addicted to anything—your brain craves whatever makes you feel good and will compel you to seek out that source again. There’s no singular part of the brain that performs the function of “reward,” because brains defy such simplification, but suffice it to say that a single reward can trigger multiple areas to release neurotransmitters that positively impact your brain.

Last modified: February 9, 2019