The Brain Science Behind Why Long Lists Don’t Work
So, you have 10 New Year’s resolutions? This year for sure you will: lose weight, quit smoking, jog daily, or meditate. According to British psychologist Richard Wiseman, 88% of all resolutions end in failure, no matter how many years they are repeatedly tried. Now, neuroscience is telling us why New Year’s resolutions don’t work. It turns out the longer the list, the more likely you are to fail.
But just why are our old habits so hard to break?
The Science of Resolutions
The brain area largely responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex (located just behind the forehead). This area of the brain is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems.
An experiment at Stanford by Dr. Baba Shiv revealed that if you load down this decision making part of the brain with extra tasks, it becomes fatigued. When it is tired or overloaded, is more likely to give in to temptation. Like any muscle, you can only ask it to do so much. So, the take home message is: Keep it short, and don’t overpromise.
Rewards or Punishment?
The brain contains an area referred to as the reward system. This area is the brain’s most primitive motivational system, one that evolved to propel us toward action and consumption.
How does the reward system compel us to act? When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to. A dopamine rush doesn’t create happiness itself, but rather the feeling of arousal. For more on this topic read Josh Freedman’s blog at Six Seconds, the Emotional Intelligence Network.
Does all this mean we can’t break ANY bad habits? No. We just can’t break them all at once. The idea of willpower is that we can force ourselves to change. This is forgetting one key ingredient to changing our behavior: self-awareness. Until we recognize our patterns and what role our habits play in our lives, we can’t change them. Emotional intelligence, or being smart with emotions, begins with self-knowledge. Here are some EQ (emotional quotient) ways to learn more about what drives you to engage in activities that may not be good for you.
Here are two ways to succeed in changing to more positive behaviors:
Pare your list down…
…to one or two things that really make you happy: for example, rather than “I will jog 10 miles a day” (and you hate jogging 1 mile), list, “I will walk with a friend tomorrow evening and talk about our plans for our trip to Hawaii.”
Focus on one area of your life you could improve:
How do I feel about the various domains of my life (e.g., work, family, community, spirit)?
Feelings, of course, provide outstanding data for this reflection.
Where I feel anxious, stressed, worried… perhaps I’m missing some crucial link.
Where I feel sad, lonely, or disconnected, perhaps I can re-invest.
Where I feel excited, hopeful, energized, perhaps I can find a clear next step.
Focus is about choosing where to commit that most precious resource: time. To focus is to let go of lesser priorities. To say “no” so you can more fully say “yes.”
Instead of a specific “resolution,” what’s one area of your life or work you’d like to put in focus. One value you’d like to strengthen?
If the goal is to lead a life well lived, perhaps being happy all the time is not the goal, but to live an examined, conscious life that would make our families proud of us. Here’s to a happy, stress-free new year!
Featured photo credit: Running, outdoor, fit/BillionPhotos.com via media.lifehack.org