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New Year’s resolutions are born in the inspired space of our minds, occupied by all the things we wish we could be or do. They stem from an authentic desire for change and to better ourselves.

Now, the bad news: According to researcher Richard Wiseman, nearly half of all Americans will make such promises to themselves each January, and 88 percent of all those lovely resolutions will fail(1). That’s in the neighborhood of 156 million failed resolutions and disappointed minds each and every year. 

Don’t take it personally. The truth is that the real fault lies in your brain. The brain cells that are responsible for what we commonly think of as “willpower” are located in the prefrontal cortex, right beneath your forehead. These cells help us stay focused, handle our short-term memory and give us our abstract thinking skills. They also help us to persist with tasks that we might not fully enjoy. Usually, the prefrontal cortex does a pretty good job, but when we introduce something that takes a lot of willpower – like a resolution – the brain simply can’t take it. 

To put things more scientifically, this is what’s happening inside your prefrontal cortex, best described through a Stanford experiment by Prof. Baba Shiv:

A group of undergraduate students were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember. The other was given a seven-digit number to remember. Then, after a short walk through the hall, they were offered the choice between two snacks: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. What’s most surprising: The students with seven-digit numbers to remember were twice as likely to pick the slice of chocolate compared to the students with the two-digits. Those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert(2).

Basically, your brain needs to be taught how to handle the weight of a major change. The more abstract the goal, the harder it is for the brain to do the heavy lifting necessary to keep you on a path to success. 

Here’s the good news: There are ways to reduce the burden on the brain and help you to attain your objective. It’s actually quite simple. You must take that “resolution” and transform it in to a “habit.” For example, if your resolution was an abstract I want to eat healthier foods in 2013, you can translate that into an action by substituting a home cooked meal in place of take out one night each week. If you resolved that you would lose weight in 2013, you can select a habit like going to a fitness class every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 

According to Prof. Shiv, your chances of making a resolution successful increase by 50 percent by simply breaking down that abstract idea into its most simple action.

If February has found you already falling off the wagon, here’s the simple kick-start:

  1. Pick Your Priority. The brain can only handle so many tasks at any given time (remember our “cognitive overload”)? You need to identify one single thing that is meaningful to you, and let everything else go. 
  2. Make a simple habit. Choose something that you can do in less than a minute, like signing up for a fitness class or swapping a banana for your morning pastry.
  3. Be accountable. That means writing down the habit you have chosen, and sharing it freely with others. Tell your friends and family, and you will be more likely to follow through on your commitment.
  4. Reward yourself. A powerful study was performed at the University of Chicago that demonstrated clearly the impacts of providing positive feedbacks in changing behavior . Give yourself small rewards for meeting goals, like allowing yourself an unhealthy treat at the end of a successful week following new dietary habits, or buying yourself a new running outfit after you log a certain number of miles.

Lastly, you have to remember that change can happen any time of the year. There’s nothing special or particularly meaningful about January 1st. Resolutions can be made as you are ready, and after you have the proper plan in place. Big changes, as it turns out, come from the smallest steps.

1.) Wiseman, R. (2007). Quirkology. London, UK: Pan Macmillan
2.) (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/01/the-willpower-trick/
The Willpower Trick By Jonah Lehrer January 9, 2012
3.) The course of motivation
Maferima Touré-Tillery, Ayelet Fishbach 
University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, 5807 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago IL 60637, USA 7 November 2010; 8 February 2011; 19 April 2011
http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ayelet.fishbach/research/TF_JCP11.pdf