New Year’s Resolutions: Great Idea! Or, Not?


(The Neuroscience Behind Why We Fail, and What to do About it!)

 It’s that time of year again, where we announce our grand plans to the world, or keep a little piece of paper hidden under our pillow, then hope and pray that we can live up to our… New Year’s Resolutions!   

The results are no surprise.  A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that six months into the year, fewer than half — 46 percent — of resolvers were still keeping their pledge.  In a 2007 study of 3,000 British people, 88% were unable to keep their resolutions.


Should we just end this silly ritual once and for all?  Or, let neuroscience help us find a different approach?


Why New Year’s Resolutions are a Great Idea!

 Rather than living on autopilot, evaluating how we can grow as human beings helps us live a healthier, more engaged life.   

Everyone loves a fresh start, and the New Year is as good a time as any to reflect on what has been serving us well in our lives, and where we can take a positive action to live with even greater fulfillment and meaning.    

A resolution gives structure to our intention, and writing it down empowers us further.  

Studies show that commitments made actively have more staying power than those made passively.     

 Our sense of accomplishment builds on itself. 

Research shows that as we develop the mental discipline to make a change, or take on something new, the brain’s pre-frontal cortex becomes stronger, enabling us to have greater willpower and focus for the next task.

As we make changes in our lives, we are a model for others, particularly our children.  

When our kids see us walk the talk, it empowers them to make positive choices and be patient and persistent in their goals.

Where We Go Wrong with New Year’s Resolutions… and What to Do About it!

Asking too much of ourselves

A study at Stanford University showed that a group of students asked to remember a seven digit number were twice as likely to choose a piece of chocolate cake over a bowl of fruit as a snack, as compared to another group who were only tasked with remembering a two digit number.  It turns out that the more cognitive  load our pre-frontal cortex  carries, the less self-regulation we have.

Solution:  Pick only one resolution

Our busy lives already load our pre-frontal cortex work. keeping us focused, handling short term memory and solving abstract problems, so adding losing weight, reducing spending and limiting Facebook time can only cause our “willpower muscles” to fatigue and fail!   For this New Year, choose only one intention.  Who says resolutions come only once a year?  You can choose another in a few months, and build on your success!

Making our resolutions too vague or broad.  

Resolutions should not be confused with goals, which are broad targets that may include many things outside your immediate control.  Your resolution may contribute to an overall life goal, but would be better initiated as a behavioral change or action you can take on a daily basis. 

Solution:   Be specific. 

While losing weight is an admirable goal, setting an achievable exercise plan helps your brain by creating a structure for action.  Even with a plan, keep your expectations realistic, and remember your intention. If your resolution is to walk three times per week, don’t stop if you don’t lose weight the first two weeks.  Remember, that was not your resolution!  If your resolution is to quit smoking, visit the smoking cessation clinic before the New Year, so you can begin the plan on January 1!

Picking a sub-optimal resolution.     

There are many small ways we can make change in our lives, and sticking to any one of them, say, eating less at every meal, is very likely to bring about change.  However, research shows that when choosing to change a habit, we would do well to look for a “keystone” habit, one which has the potential for starting a chain reaction in our lives.

Solution:  Consider developing what might be a “keystone” habit. 

In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg comments on University of Rhode Island research: “Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed…For many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”  Neuroscience has shown us that Mindfulness Meditation is another profound keystone habit.   In subjects who meditate regularly, actual growth in the medial pre-frontal cortex (MPFC) has been documented, with improvement in self-regulation, emotional and and immune system health as just a few of the overall results.

Avoiding the Owl Rather than Focusing on the Cheese. 

While asking for support and encouragement from a close friend or family member can help keep you motivated, announcing your grand Resolution to your entire Facebook network might leave you like the mouse, looking over her shoulder for the owl and wondering when she will be caught.  A study at the University of Maryland tested this phenomena.  Two groups of students were asked to do a simple pencil maze; one group was to avoid the owl, the other to get to the cheese at the end of the maze.  After finishing the puzzle, the owl avoiders did 50% worse on the next creative task than the cheese seekers.   Avoidance pathways in the brain shut down creative thinking and risk taking, while approach pathways reduced stress and allowed those focused on their goal to be successful.

Solution:  Set up rewards for small successes before you begin, and don’t worry about what others are thinking. 

This is your life, and you are doing this for you.  Your intention is to create long-term change, but human beings do better with regular hits of “feel good” chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine.  Treat yourself to a good night’s sleep, maybe in a fancy hotel room with a bubble bath, a funny movie, a walk in the woods, a day with a good friend.  These will serve your intention far better than a “sneak” reward, like just one cigarette, or a bag full of Doritos. 

Setting Up an “All or Nothing” Scenario.  

Don’t kid yourself and think you will never eat another Dorito. Even with heavy duty addictions like cigarettes, a relapse does not mean ultimate failure.  In fact, one study showed that 71% of people who successfully quit smoking said their first slip actually strengthened their efforts to quit.

Solution:  Acknowledge fallibility and plan for it

Astronaut Chris Hadfield describes the training strategy for space station crew members as “What is the Next Thing that Could Kill Me?”  Astronauts are drilled to expect fallibility and to know what to do if a fail happens, and thus are able to solve inevitable problems without collapsing into panic.  Get your strategies in line:  When you miss one of your weekly walks, you have a friend lined up to walk with you.  A bag of Doritos means a chance to head to Whole Foods for a healthy, delicious alternative. An overspend on a credit card is a reminder to telephone a financial counselor, today.  If you were learning to play the piano, would you expect never to play a wrong note?  As we move through this new endeavor, and acknowledge ourselves as fallible human beings, perhaps even with a smile, we down regulate the amygdala, or hair trigger in our brains that sends us into the fight or flight mode, which says, “I’ve blown it now, it’s all over.”  We are able to move out of the past, and into the present moment, where we can take a positive action towards our plan.

Final Thought for this Year

The Latin origin of the word resolution is: “to loosen or release, dissolve.”  Release your judgments and bathe yourself in kindness as you contemplate your New Year’s Resolutions. Talk to yourself like your grandmother who loves you no matter what, but gives good advice, too.  Loosen up about what’s wrong with you, and focus on what’s right.  Let this be your guide to an inspired you in 2018!


From my article in Camarillo Life Magazine for January, 2014.