This time last year you likely set New Year’s Resolutions for yourself. Maybe they were health-related, or maybe your goals were financial or employment-focused. You had the best intentions, and you believed in yourself, just like you were supposed to. So what went wrong?
It turns out that starting (and maintaining) healthy habits is both simple and complex. Our brain is hardwired to reward us with the release of dopamine in anticipation of something pleasurable (like a cookie), and it can be trained to release that same dopamine when we start a healthy habit. The ability of the brain to change its neural circuitry in response to learning something is called neuroplasticity, and this neuroplasticity is crucial when forming new habits.
Here’s how it works:
- The brain senses an opportunity for pleasure, like a cookie, and neurons begin to fire
- If the reward is going to be big, neurons fire at a faster rate
- These neurons wake up the “habit system” of the brain (nucleus accumbens); the system does a quick evaluation to see if the opportunity offers sufficient reward to pursue
- If the answer is yes, the action (the habit) is performed (you eat the cookie)
This system of the brain is not just for eating. There is some indication that logging onto Facebook or surfing the internet in general activates this process. Any activity that we find pleasurable is capable of activating the habit-forming pleasure centers of the brain.
Unfortunately for us, our brain is less inclined to enthusiastically embrace those things we find difficult or not pleasurable. This includes starting an exercise regimen, improving the diet, or completing a difficult task. If we have spent many years carving out our neural pathways to fire up when we have a smoke or take a drink, it can be difficult to retrain the brain to go another way.
Difficult, but not impossible. There are ways to help the brain along. Essentially, you are telling the brain that it will ultimately get the same reward from the new, healthy behavior as it does from the old, not-so-healthy behavior. The most important part of this retraining process is to set small, achievable goals en route to the big goal.
Think of it this way: when a person wants to be President of the United States, that’s not where they start. Their journey to the White House begins in high school, when they run for student government treasurer in tenth grade and then work their way up to student body president by their senior year. It continues in college when they run for president of their Greek association, maybe losing a few elections along the way. They may be a governor before they reach the White House, or they may be part of Congress.
The point is that there are many small steps along the way to reaching a goal. If you want to achieve your New Year’s Resolutions this year, here are ten small, achievable resolutions to set along the way.
1. Resolve to stick to a schedule
As you embark upon 365 days of healthy habit-building, there will be times when you are tired, sore, cranky, or otherwise totally uninterested in doing something good for you. If you have taken the time to schedule your new habits, the schedule will do all of your deciding for you. If, for example, you schedule a walk with your dog twice a day at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., your dog will be the one to keep you on track. If you resolve to drink a full glass of water with each meal, that scheduled habit will keep you going (you have to eat!). Write it down on a calendar or set your phone to remind you. Eventually it will become automatic.
2. Resolve to adopt one healthy habit a month
Start by increasing your water intake in January, and then add exercise or eating an extra serving of vegetables every day. Changing one thing at a time is easier to adjust to than changing everything at once, and keeping it simple makes it easier to stick with. By the end of the year, you will have 12 healthy habits you have adopted and stuck with for the whole year.
3. Resolve to add just ten more minutes of exercise every day
For their New Year’s Resolution, people make the mistake of resolving to exercise an hour a day, five days a week. If they are starting from no exercise at all this is nearly impossible to maintain. Ten minutes a day is a quick walk around the block, a series of five sun salutations, or a brief bike ride to the park with the kids. If you can find ten minutes to surf the web, you can find ten minutes to exercise. Or start with seven and go for the quick boost of high intensity interval training.
4. Resolve to rid yourself of one bad habit a month
This might be procrastinating, or it might be quitting smoking. Whatever it is, devote a month to banishing the habit by giving yourself four weeks to break it down. For example, if you smoke and want to quit, take the first week to develop a plan for quitting and gather resources such as a local support group. Then take it one week at a time, and let your new good habit help destroy your old, bad habit. Drink a glass of water every time you want to smoke, or take a walk.
5. Resolve to speak to a friend every day
This may be a simple phone call, or you may meet in person. One of the biggest indicators of longevity is how strong a person’s social network is, and that has nothing to do with Facebook. Other research shows that people who enlist the help of friends and family members for support in habit formation (or bad habit destruction) are more successful in the long term. You can combine this resolution with your exercise resolution, too.
6. Resolve to show gratitude every day
Keeping a journal and quickly writing down three things you are grateful for every day before bed can help you stick to your New Year’s resolutions. Plus, recent research indicates that this simple, daily practice can actually improve health and well-being.
7. Resolve to practice daily self-care
Sometimes we mistake treating ourselves for taking care of ourselves. That peppermint mocha or dinner out does not fall under the category of “self-care,” and may actually take away from healthy progress. Self-care is taking time for yourself and spending it on activities that nourish and rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit. These activities can be quiet and reflective (reading, meditating) or loud and active (dance classes, festivals). Often there is a good mix of both, with a common factor being the focus on practicing something you truly enjoy and that is good for you. Don’t hide behind a Big Mac or a videogame and call it self-care. Find out what brings you peace and joy and strength, and then make time to do it daily.
8. Resolve to give back every week
In the thick of a crisis, the world turns inward and all we can manage to do is to think about ourselves. Sometimes, though, the opposite is the most helpful response. Every week, identify a way to give back in your community. This might be tutoring at a library, volunteering at a food bank, or picking up trash in your community on your daily, ten-minute walk. Giving back, or even thinking about giving back, improves health dramatically and should be an integral part of your New Year’s resolutions.
9. Resolve to stay positive in the face of any slips
It can take a long time to develop new, healthy habits, especially if your old habits have been firmly entrenched. There will be days along the way where your resolve will falter, and you will slip up. This is when it becomes even more important to stay positive. Research shows that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. Large changes or small changes, the time frame doesn’t vary, and slipping up doesn’t affect that average. So if on the path to good health you stumble, that’s okay. Keep moving forward.
10. Resolve to swim ten strokes
An older man swam the English Channel and was interviewed as he left the water. When asked how he did it, what made him keep going and not give up, he said that he kept telling himself to swim ten strokes, and then if he felt he had to quit after ten, he could. He kept telling himself that he would swim ten strokes, and eventually he made it across the Channel. Resolve every day just to keep going on your new healthy habits until the end of each day. Give yourself permission to change your mind, and you may find your determination is strengthened every day.
Keeping your New Year’s Resolutions starts with small, achievable goals. What are your resolutions for 2015?
Image by John Pavelka via Flickr