The New Year seems, psychologically, like a great opportunity to kick start some good new habits and ditch some old bad ones – but the fact is many of us fail to stick with these resolutions for even a new week, let alone the new year. So why do so many of us fall short of these goals we set ourselves? Short answer, it all lies in your brain. Here, we take a look at how habits are formed, and share our top five tips for setting New Year goals.
The human brain is wired to pay attention to formally tried and tested, ‘pleasing’ stimuli. Studies have found that when people see something associated with a past reward, their brain flushes itself with dopamine. This is the reason why old habits are hard to break, and new habits are hard to establish.
Let’s explain a little further: neural pathways are like freeways of nerve cells that transmit messages. When you travel over the freeway many times, the path becomes more and more well worn, to the point of carving out a rut that it’s difficult to get out of. All, however, is not lost, because with the right approach you can establish a new path. By practicing a new habit under the right conditions, you can change hundreds of millions of the connections between the nerve cells in your neural pathways.
Neural pathways can be strengthened into new habits through the repetition and practice of thinking, feeling and acting. However, changing a way of thinking and doing does require willpower; like a bicep, it can only exert itself so long before it gives out. It is an extremely limited mental resource. Bad habits are hard to break, and they’re impossible to break if we try to take a sledgehammer to too many of them at the same time. To fix ‘willpower weaknesses’ we need to know what they are – only then can the relevant mental muscles get strengthened.
The brain area principally responsible for willpower is called the prefrontal cortex, and is located just behind the forehead. One of the reasons that a lot of us struggle with our own willpower is that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for a number of things in addition to our New Year’s resolutions! A substantial portion of the cortex, for example, is in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory, decision making, regulating behaviour and solving abstract problems. Asking it to guide you in losing weight, giving up smoking or starting jogging 5km every day can be asking it to do one thing too many. So, let’s look at some hacks to help you strengthen that willpower and stick with your good intentions.
1. Learn how to manage stress
Our prefrontal cortex loses out in the battle for our energy when high stress is involved. That’s why so many of us indulge in undesirable behaviours when the stress levels are high. Whether it’s yoga, a swim, a walk or a nap, find out what activity helps you reduce your stress levels.
2. Stick to your plan using self-affirmation
In times of struggle or temptation, remind yourself that you CAN do this! Even if you feel self-conscious doing so at first, it can help you to have more self-control. Taking back control of the situation will keep your mind focused on the goal at hand.
3. Get more sleep to help your brain better manage energy
Getting enough sleep makes a big difference to how efficiently the prefrontal cortex works. Sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain uses energy. Sleep deprivation hits the prefrontal cortex hard, causing it to lose control over the regions of the brain that create cravings. When you’re trying to stick with a health or fitness related resolution, this is most definitely not something you want! So, do yourself a favour and hit the hay early.
4. Try meditation
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but meditation can positively influence our available reserves of willpower. In addition, it can improve attention, focus, stress management and self-awareness. Give it a try, you may surprise yourself by slipping into a zen-like state of calm control.
5. Eat better and move more!
Whether your New Year’s resolutions are health related or not, a healthy diet and regular physical exercise will make energy more available to the brain and boost your willpower.
There are no secrets and no short cuts. It’s simple, just train the body and the mind. If you look after your brain, your brain will look after you.
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