“So what is your resolution for 2012?” I asked a friend over the holidays.
“Resolutions??!! I don’t do resolutions, they are so cliché. People make their resolutions in January, break their resolutions by February and then spend the next 11 months feeling guilty about them until it is time to disappoint themselves again the following year.”
Although I was initially taken aback by the cynicism of the comment (and possibly a little offended that she was basically calling me cliché for making a resolution), what she said had merit.
It sometimes seems that there are as many tips and suggestions on how to set goals as there are people making and breaking New Year resolutions each year. Write them down, use the S.M.A.R.T approach (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMART_criteria), break them into small actionable steps, and celebrate the wins, to name a few. However, the stark reality is that many people take each of the steps and yet still fail to meet their goals and achieve their New Year resolutions – why is this?
Studies in the field of neuroscience can shed some light on this phenomenon. Whenever we initiate a change, even a positive New Year’s resolution such as ‘exercising to get in shape’, we activate the emotional centers of our limbic brain. The limbic brain is designed to reward certainty and predictability and it is because of this design that humans have survived throughout the ages. From a limbic brain perspective, ‘change’ often leads us down a path of uncertainty and less predictability. As a result our brain tries to intervene on our good intentions to change and fulfill a New Year’s resolution by invoking its power to entice us back to our “old” predictable ways. One way that it accomplishes this is by dousing our blood with feel-good chemicals such as dopamine as a reward when we continue with our old behaviors. This is why we initially feel good sitting around on the couch watching re-runs of T.V. shows instead of going to the gym if getting in shape was our New Year’s resolution.
Luckily, we are not totally at the mercy of our limbic brain. With the knowledge of what actions trigger it, then we can learn how to manage it to work in our favor. To do this we must look at the various stages people go through on their journey to changing and achieving their New Year’s resolutions.
Stage 1 – Unrealistic Optimism:
Most of us can relate to the feeling of a fresh new start; the alluring emotional feeling that we get when we envision a future that is different, that is better, that is perfect because it will resolve all of our current life challenges. We think that if we build enough motivation and have enough willpower we will prevail and that nothing will stop us from achieving our goals. Again, we can thank our emotional brain and the feel-good chemicals that are released when we envision the possibilities of a perfect world with a new “you”. The catch here is that we aren’t doing anything differently yet, we are just envisioning it so the brain initially reacts to this in an advantageous way.
Stage 2 – Informed Pessimism:
The initial excitement does not last forever as the untidiness of reality sets in and we realize that perfection isn’t all that easy to attain. We start to feel down on ourselves when we recognize that sheer willpower is not enough to achieve our goals and that even if they are achieved, they won’t solve everything. We experience a gap between our good intentions behind the resolution (e.g., get in shape and healthy in 2012), and actually taking the necessary steps to achieve the resolutions (e.g., going to the gym). This occurs because the limbic brain now sends out error signals instead of feel-good chemicals when we try to change. These error signals promote us to believe that other commitments, tasks and distractions will feel better and will be more rewarding than the changes we are attempting to make to fulfill our New Year’s resolutions
Psychologists Janet Polivy and Peter Herman describe such over-optimism as theFalse Hope Syndrome. Overconfidence about the size, speed, and ease of major life changes is associated with lower success rates due to the incongruence between the initial expectations and current reality. However, the same research also shows that people who achieve their goals and those who don’t actually can go through these two stages. The difference is that those who do achieve their goals don’t get stuck in Stage 2.
Stage 3 – Realistic Optimism:
Cognizant of the challenging reality and acceptance of the unavoidable obstacles that present themselves on our journey to changing our behavior, our original optimism starts to reassert itself. The positive sense of potential begins to creep back in as we realize that although difficult, it is possible to achieve our resolutions and we continually take action on our goals even when difficult.
Stage 4 – Integrated Change:
Eventually, things become relatively steady and manageable as the new behaviors are integrated into our current reality and we achieve our resolution.
So the question then becomes, how can more of us get out of the Stage 2 rut and into Stage 3?
It can be quite simple if we go back to the brain science. Because our brain rewards predictability we must do a better job of building it into our plans. If we don’t anticipate and expect the feelings of Stage 2 that are associated with making a change then we force ourselves to work against the natural design of our brain, and as we know, we often lose this battle and give up on our resolutions.
Instead, expect the challenges and potent negative feelings that arise when trying to accomplish your goals. When initially making a resolution ensure you write down every obstacle that can come up, excuses you will give yourself, challenges you will face, and just as crucial, record how you will overcome them. Next, keep this list with you so that when these hurdles do arise, simply have a look over your checklist and identify which predictable situation has arisen. This will trick your brain into thinking it is getting ‘predictability.’ Since you have already designed how you will overcome the challenge you have also given your brain a sense of certainty – the two ingredients required to move you from Stage 2 to Stage 3.
Integrate this one simple addition to your New Year Resolution List and avoid being a cliché in 2012!