Wishing to change yourself and better yourself is a beautiful and uplifting thing, I have no doubt.

And it seems that’s also how most other individuals think: 50 % of all Americans for example set themselves a New Year’s resolution.

That’s quite amazing! What’s not so fantastic is that according to the researcher Richard Wiseman, 88 % of all those set resolutions from half of America and probably lots of other individuals in the world fail. That’s 156 million failed resolutions and discouraged minds every single year.

The sheer quantities of this really made me think. I wanted to understand better the reason why we are so bad at maintaining our freshly laid out resolutions and what we can do to actually make them stick.

Here is the tangible science behind establishing a New Year’s resolution and more science on just how you can actually change yourself for the better:

Your human brain can’t handle New Year’s resolutions– here is the reason why

What we ought to stick to our New Year’s resolutions is self-discipline. Your brain cells that operate willpower are located in the prefrontal cerebral cortex, which is the region directly behind your forehead.

That particular area of the brain is also responsible for staying focused, handling short-term memory and working out abstract tasks as an example.

brain-prefrontal-cortexNow, when you set a New Year’s resolution, a tremendous amount of willpower is mandated. It’s an amount that your brain simply can’t deal with. To put more scientifically, this is what’s occurring inside your prefrontal cortex, best described through a Stanford experiment by Prof. Baba Shiv:

A group of undergraduate students were separated into 2 groups. One group of people was given a two-digit number to remember. The other was given a seven-digit number to recall. Then, after a short stroll through the hall, they were provided the choice involving two snacks: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. What’s most surprising: The students with 7-digit numbers to remember were two times as likely to pick the slice of chocolate as compared to the students with the 2-digits.

The reasoning of why this happens? According to Prof. Shiv, it’s quite obvious:

“Those additional numbers took up valuable space in the brain– they were a “cognitive load”– making it that much more difficult to avoid a decadent dessert.”

So your prefrontal cortex that deals with willpower functions like a muscle, that has to be trained, as Tony Schwartz always mentions. If you decide to train that muscle at the beginning of the new year with a resolution to stop smoking, start going to the gym, or lose lots of weight, that’s the parallel of a 300 pound barbell you want to lift without any previous training.

It’s not a surprise that your brain can’t do the heavy lifting.

Resolutions vs. habits– why unclear aspirations don’t work

“What a blunder– the whole idea around New Year’s resolutions. People aren’t choosing specific behaviors, they’re picking abstractions,” says BJ Fogg from Stanford University.

The problem is clear: any abstract goal you have that is not matched to a specific behavior is pretty much impossible for your brain to concentrate on. Rendering it “instinctual,” which is the crucial facet that will help you achieve any new habit, is missing in 90 % of all New Year’s resolutions, which makes them so likely to fall short.

Alternatively, the key is making any goal a habit before all else. And most essentially, make it a modest one. Here is a list of examples of just how this translates to a few of the 4 most common new year’s resolutions:

  • Resolution: Quit smoking vs. Habit: Stop smoking that 1 cigarette you have each and every morning after breakfast time
  • Resolution: Eat healthy food vs. Habit: Begin substituting that 1 daily morning danish for a banana
  • Resolution: Lose weight vs. Habit: Each and every evening soon after work, go for a 2-3 minute run or walk the neighborhood.
  • Resolution: Handle stress vs. Habit: Relax for 2-3 minutes every morning after you wake up.

By immediately breaking down each resolution and seeing what the most basic habit could be, your chances of succeeding will be 50 % greater. There is virtually nothing more. You make it so easy and effortless for yourself to develop that habit that there is almost no chance you can fail with it.

Ok, now enough of why the dark and gloomy reasons of new year’s resolutions don’t work. What can we seriously do to make them work?

The 4 steps to make New Year’s resolution stand

So if you’ve established yourself a few major new changes, listed here are among the most important things to think about to actually change your behavior for a better you:

1. Pick just one resolution

As Stanford’s Prof. Shiv detailed with her “cognitive overload” experiment, sticking to more than just 1 New Year’s resolution is near impossible for your brain to handle. Instead, analyze everything you’ve contemplated to change and pick the one thing that’s most important for you.

Then, release everything else, otherwise you’ll be picking the chocolate cake in every situation, instead of the choice that you set out making.

2. Take baby steps– make it a small habit

Since you’ve picked one resolution, ensure to break down as far as you can, to the most basic task achievable. If your resolution is “heading to the gym”, turn it into the smallest habit conceivable that you can carry out in under 60 seconds.

BJ Fogg from Stanford created a great application specifically for this, called TinyHabits. It’s an awesome way to get started with any new year’s resolution you have in mind:

3. Hold yourself accountable for what you would like to change: Tell others or write it down

In a study from 2007 performed by researcher Evans, they uncovered a striking connection between increased social support and reducing blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol. What does that have to do amidst New Year’s resolutions?

Well, it has proven as striking evidence that people around you can have a considerable impact on your behavior. So if you tell a few of your friends and family about the brand new tiny habit you’ve created, you are a lot more likely to adhere to it.

One more pointer here is that writing it down not just makes you more likely to succeed with your new habit and on top of that, boosts your overall happiness.

4. Focus on the carrot, not the stick– positive feedback and rewards raise your chance of success

A commanding study from the University of Chicago outlines how precisely positive feedback on any one of your new habits will increase the likelihood of your success with your new habits and resolutions.

Together with this goes the fact that rewarding your own self for advancements with your habits with things that make you feel wonderful are a sure fire way to increase your success rate, according to Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute.

So treating yourself to an unhealthy treat after a few days of successful diet habits changes is much more than appropriate if you really hope to make it through the other end.

Eric Barker also has an outstanding list of more details you can do in order to make sure your new resolutions will end well.

Simple last fact: Strong willpower is not a character trait

One incredibly reassuring and important last fact is that having strong willpower is not anything we’re born with, in contrast to popular opinion.

“Research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises deteriorate in large part simply because the brain wasn’t built for success.”

So much like your bicep has to be trained in order to grow stronger, so does the prefrontal cortex in your brain. The key is to make sure not to start off lifting too heavy, as then we’re bound to drop everything on the ground with our new year’s resolutions.