Why more than 80% of us fail our New Year’s resolutions by Valentine’s Day – and how YOU could keep going longer
- Humans have evolved to want higher goals beyond just surviving
- But it’s difficult to keep our brains fixated on one thing for that long without new goals
- Research shows why we plateau – but there are ways to keep resetting yourself
We’re just over a week into 2019.
That means, for the millions of people who are still sticking to their New Year’s resolutions, it’s been a whole 192 hours.
Congratulations – you’ll probably keep it up for another month, at best.
According to research by the University of Minnesota, 80 percent of people fall off the aspirational wagon before Valentine’s Day.
Why? It’s difficult to keep our brains fixated on one thing for that long without new goals, regular rewards, and signs that this time-consuming diet, workout regime, tech detox – what have you – is worth it.
If New Year’s resolutions were easy, we wouldn’t need to make them – we’d just be living that way anyway, explains Dr Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco.
It’s likely we’ll be having this conversation again in a year’s time.
But for now, Dr Merzenich offers some insight into why resolutions are so hard to keep, and some tips on how to keep going (at least past mid-February).
Research by the University of Minnesota show 80 percent of us fall off the aspirational wagon before Valentine’s Day. Researchers explain why, and offer some tips to keep going longer
WHY WE MAKE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS: EVOLUTION PLAYS A HUGE ROLE
It is uniquely human to make New Year’s resolutions.
Unlike other species, we have evolved to have large frontal lobes, the parts of the brain that allow us to choose goals beyond just surviving the winter and escaping predators.
Humans today can have abstract goals, think critically about them, and persuade themselves stick to those goals (at least for a bit).
In fact, we’re not just able to have these goals, we’ve evolved to crave these goals, to have a higher purpose than just living.
In order for all this to play out as you intend, you need various functions of your brain to work in concert.
Your desire to stick to your goal is the most important thing here.
That is the domain of the executive function, in control of planning and reasoning and decision-making, is obviously key – mainly controlled by your pre-frontal lobe.
But your attention span is something else entirely. That is controlled, largely, by the thalamus, a brain region we share with all mammals.
‘The smallest thing can carry you off the beam,’ Dr Merzenich explains.
‘You think “this is the time when I planned to practice piano, but, wait, there’s a game on TV…” and then, you fail.’
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WHY YOU CAN’T STICK WITH IT PAST VALENTINE’S DAY
1. Weight loss
The most common resolution is to shed the holiday weight gain.
If weight loss is your goal, you’re likely to be disappointed.
There is a lot that can be done to change your body shape (both natural and surgical), but studies suggest we all have a genetically-determined range that our bodies are most comfortable in.
It’s easy to lose weight at first – our bodies have more fat to burn, so metabolism ticks along smoothly. But as your fat reserves dry up, your metabolism slows, and so does your progress.
2. Quitting smoking
Of course, nicotine addiction and withdrawal symptoms are a big one here.
Being around other smokers is another significant obstacle.
For many, finding a replacement for the relaxing feeling of dragging on a cigarette is hard. It’s common to snack instead – and once you see weight gain, it’s easy to give up altogether.
3. Going tech-free
Today, everything is geared towards apps, social media, and being online.
Whether it’s to communicate with friends, research something for work, or login to a WiFi network – you’re constantly being lured back in.
What’s more, you may simply start to get that itch to go back.
Humans are social creatures, and resisting a pool of social contact is hard – even if you have strong reasons for wanting to step away.
And many of these apps and sites have notifications that act as little nuggets of reward – someone invited you to something, or liked your comment, or shared your post. Those alerts are to users like ringing bells were to Pavlov’s dogs – irresistible.
4. All of the above
The stress of even trying to change your lifestyle is an obstacle in itself.
Stress impacts our health in so many ways – driving us to pick up the comfort of not having to try.
THE WRONG WAY TO APPROACH RESOLUTIONS
Don’t kid yourself that you just weren’t determined enough last year.
It takes a stronger plan than just sheer will to keep going.
‘People commonly think they can attack this in a piecemeal way – they think “this year, I’m going to really promise myself” – and, that’s not enough,’ Dr Merzenich explains.
Doing things to exercise your brain could help.
‘If the machinery is weak, and you have weakness on the distractibility or executive control side or in memory or in all that information that’s feeding executive control, then there are all these reasons you fail.
‘You really need to exercise all the machinery in a more holistic way, so you are better equipped to keep your promises to yourself.’
HOW TO STICK WITH IT
1. Be prepared for the plateau
A study backed by Slimming World in 2013 found a quick-fix diet can only get you so far at the start of your workout. Later on, exercise becomes crucial, you’ll need to find a more sustainable diet, and ‘remain vigilant, to catch slips in behavior that may lead to weight regain.’
2. Set some clear goals
Studies have shown that setting goals could prolong dietary and exercise efforts – but the jury is out on exactly what methods to use.
3. Think about why you made these resolutions
In mid-February, take a moment to reset and reflect on what you’ve done so far.
Think about what you’ve achieved, what you want to achieve before March, and why.
4. Try some brain exercises
Dr Merzenich suggests trying intensive, repetitive activities to keep your brain nimble.
Apps like BrainHQ, or even increasingly complex su doku puzzles, could help exercise various aspects of your brain.
‘The whole idea is to build a stronger machine in all of its operations.’ Dr. Merzenich said.
‘If your brain is really vital, if it’s really in command, if it’s really stable and not easily carried off the mark, you’re going to keep your commitments.’
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