Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.