Science Can Help You Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

Science Can Help You Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

I declared on Twitter that my New Year's resolution would be 1920x1200. Clever as I thought my nerd humour was, it would appear that this was a bit of a recurring joke among nerd tweeps and just proved once again that there is no original thought.

january first
January First by Crystal via Flickr

[Aside: I am of the opinion that any idea at any time was likely had by someone else in some other time. If you don't believe me, just Google any famous patent and then find out how many other patents were filed at similar times.]

Nerd jokes aside, you've probably resolved to do something(s) more/less regularly this year and now that your commitment is made (and probably posted publicly on some social platform), you need to figure out how to stick to it.

Calendar with January 1 highlighted

Thankfully, science can help.

No, I'm not referring to pop-psychology "5 things you can do to stick to your resolutions" pseudo-science. I mean actual science.

Behaviour change is difficult. Research in habit formation done by the Brain & Behavior Discovery Institute at Georgia Health Sciences University explored the role of NDMA receptors on dopamine neurons in the brain, which seem to facilitate habits, procedures or tasks that we do "on autopilot". If you're familiar with Skinner experiments (in which mice press a bar and are randomly rewarded with food, which causes them to press the bar repeatedly in hopes of getting more food), then you might be interested to know that the Georgia Health team used a change in brain chemistry to assess behaviour: removing NDMA receptors prevented mice who were full from pressing the lever. Mice who still had their NDMA receptors pressed the bar whether or not they were hungry. This type of research might one day devise a method (or more likely a drug) that could prevent humans from being susceptible to their mindless habits but in the meantime, we need to recognize this behaviour in ourselves in order to change our own habits.

Think about the number of times you have tried to pick up any new habit (or tried to get rid of a bad one). How many times were you successful? The first thing that could work against you is the idea of a "resolution": Making broad, sweeping promises is apparently entirely the worst way to go about actual behaviour modification.

"I'm going to work out more."
"I'm going to get in shape."
"I'm going to learn to play an instrument."
"I'm going to spend more time with my family."

Now this shouldn't be a big surprise: at work we insist on SMART goals (i.e. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound). But if you look at resolutions, they are about the farthest things from SMART as you can get. They might be well intentioned, but they are definitely not SMART.

Like at work, in order to achieve behaviour change in our personal lives, we need to set specific, achievable goals that we can accomplish in order to positively reinforce the new behaviour and encourage us to repeat it. This approach is not far removed from 12-step programs: Never repeating a behaviour again for an entire lifetime is too daunting to consider, so these programs tend to focus on a single unit of time: a single day.

And apparently, for resolutions to be successful, immediate goals need to be tiny. Because tiny steps lead to big change. Take for instance the work of Dr. Fogg who runs the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford. He explains on his site:

Only three things will change behavior in the long term. 
Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your context (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps

It would appear that Option C is probably the only realistic option for most of us. But there's a catch: baby steps are probably way smaller than you realize. The one example that seems to be the most striking (per this article and this one too) is the idea of starting to floss your teeth regularly. How would you change your behaviour if you'd never flossed regularly before? Dr. Fogg suggests starting by flossing a single tooth.

I'll bet that even if you did try to break down your resolution into manageable steps, you never went that small. If you've failed on your resolutions before, then you might want to reconsider those large, lofty goals, and boil them down to tiny incremental tasks that you can actually complete and then acknowledge and encourage yourself for completing them.

Science said so.

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