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How to brain hack your New Year's resolution for success
It's not about the resolution but about how your mind tackles the problem.
- Every New Year people resolve to improve their lives, only to peter out during the "February Fail."
- Studies have shown that people who employ cognitive-behavioral processes, or brain hacks, can increase their chances of success.
- We look at how hacking the habit loop, setting SMART goals, and silencing your inner perfectionist can help make 2019 your year.
The new year approaches and with it comes our annual habit of self-promises in the form of New Year's resolutions. Statistically speaking, though, 2019 won't be your year. While many of us start strong, we tend to flounder come February, and studies cite the failure rate to be anywhere from 80 to 90 percent.
In the face of those odds, many have grown despondent at the idea that a New Year's resolution can make a difference and choose not to make one. But that doesn't help much either. A notable study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, published in 2002, found that New Year's resolvers — people who actually tried to fix things — reported a higher rate of success in changing a life problem, than "nonresolvers." Only 4 percent of the latter group managed that feat.
The study noted that the "successful resolvers employed more cognitive-behavioral processes" than the nonresolvers or, as they are more commonly known, "brain hacks."
Reprogram the habit loop
The New Year's resolution is a means to kick start a change in your life, so you'll need to prime your brain to onboard new ways of doing things. Enter habit making.
In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, journalist Charles Duhigg investigates the neuroscience of habit forming and identifies what he calls the habit loop, a series of three steps that our brain uses to wire habits. The steps are the cue (I just got off work and I'm tired), the routine (I sit down and bust out the rocky road), and the reward (a hit of dopamine from that sweet, sweet ice cream).
To short circuit bad habits and rewire good ones, Duhigg recommends hijacking this loop by installing advantageous cues and rewards. In his Big Think interview, he explains how one might do so to create a habit of exercise:
So, here's what studies say is the number one way to start an exercise habit, eat a piece of chocolate after you work out. And what's amazing about this is that […] you will only eat that piece of chocolate for the first week and a half. You'll set up a cue, running clothes by your bed or you lace up your shoes before breakfast, something to trigger the behavior. You go on your run or you work out then you come home and eat a piece of chocolate [and] your brain will begin encoding. Your brain will eventually enjoy exercise for exercise sake, right, endorphins and endocannabinoids will create a sense of reward.
To build a strong habit, Duhigg notes, the reward part of the habit loop need to come immediately after the routine. Focusing your reward only on the ultimate goal (weight loss or a perfect beach body) will not cause your brain to associate the routine with something instantly rewarding.
Making SMART signposts
If anyone could have used some SMART goals, it was Ned Stark.
(Photo from HBO)
A major reason for the "February Fail" is that people start with large, indefinite goals. They decide, for example, to get healthier. But what qualifies as healthy? Is it getting more sleep? Is it drinking less alcohol or cooking with fewer processed foods?
They don't know, so navigating their New Year's resolution is like trying to sail from California to Japan with only the knowledge that you need to move in a westward direction. To help our brains manage the journey, we need to signpost the journey with smaller, SMARTer steps.
SMART is an acronym that spells out a better way to plan for success. SMART goals are:
- Specific (you know how to do it);
- Measurable (you can quantify it);
- Action-oriented (you do something, not feel something);
- Realistic (you know it's possible); and
- Time-defined (you have a clear schedule for completion).
As psychologist Randy J. Paterson points out in his book How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, SMART goals create effective, immediate objectives to make our ultimate goal more manageable.
Returning to our health example, say you wanted to reduce your alcohol consumption because it's crept into heavy territory. Instead of making the New Year's resolution to simply drink less, set a goal to drink no more than two drinks a day for the first month. It's specific, measurable, time-defined, and more realistic than cutting cold turkey. That's still a lot, though, so after your first month of success, cut it back to no more than two drinks a day, five days a week. Continue to use SMART goals like this until you've mastered the problem you resolved to solve.
Silence the inner perfectionist
Japan's Gudetama looks how every perfectionist feels about New Year's resolutions. Only in egg form. Photo credit: by Arnold Gatilao on Flickr
Perfectionism is antithetical to any change in our lives. After all, if you could perfectly manage what you are trying to accomplish, there would be no need for the resolution to begin with.
The problem is that it curbs progress. Paterson notes three reasons why this is:
- Reasonable standards provide greater access to success, granting us positive boosts. Perfectionism derives us of these mental motivators.
- Reasonable standards allow us to continue momentum on projects. Perfectionism requires a lot of time to manage minor errors.
- Reasonable standards aren't scary. Perfectionism imposes fear of challenges because it makes excelling unachievable.
Since perfectionism requires one to focus on failures and setbacks, the brain hacker's solution is a growth mindset. A growth mindset understands that abilities and intelligence can be developed and that failure is part of that developing process. By not harping on your mistakes, readjusting, and then retrying, you too can kill your inner perfectionist and cultivate a growth mindset.
Your SMART goals will also assist you here as they require you to stick to a predefined time table — strict schedules being the kryptonite of all perfectionism.
Keep on keeping
Why was Hermione the only one capable of progressing the plot? She always invested in learning something new. Image source: Warner Bros. Pictures
As you continue, you'll inevitably hit the wall of indifference. The resolution that excited you in January may seem stale come March. To break through this wall, keep learning and expanding your repertoire of mental hacks in order to keep the novelty-seeking part of your brain primed.
One study found that an area of the brain called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA for short) responds to novelty more than other forms of stimulus, such as emotional content. The researchers argue that this provides evidence that novelty is a "motivating bonus to explore an environment in the search for reward rather than being a reward itself."
In other words, novelty can push you to keep on keeping. If your goal is to eat better, reinvest by learning a new recipe when the standards get bland. If you want to keep your exercise momentum, pick a new route to run or learn a new exercise. If you want to read more, branch out into a genre or topic that's outside your repertoire.
These brain hacks work because they require us consider the thoughts that steer behavior. Rather than allowing our emotional state to jerk our behavior around, we instead program it to move in the direction we need it to. This not only increases our chances of success but also our resilience to failure.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.