Wednesday, 28 December 2011

New Year’s resolutions

The year is almost over. For many people, this is the time to make a New Year’s resolution. Many people want to change their lifestyle towards a healthier one. Others want to boost their careers or finances or improve their selves. Wikipedia cites the top 5 New Year’s resolutions for 2012: be financially-savvy, read at least one book per month, eat properly, get enough sleep, and keep a journal of awesome moments. However, success rates with New Year’s resolutions are not very high. One study found it to be around 12%. What can we do in order to make our New Year’s resolution happen?

Jonah Lehrer gives the advice to spread the resolutions out over the entire year. The reason for this is one we all know: Bad habits are hard to break, and it is almost impossible to break several bad habits at the same time. The scientific explanation for this fact is that the brain region that is responsible for our willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is also in charge of many other tasks, including attention, short-term memory, and problem solving. Therefore, its capacities for exerting willpower are somewhat limited. In an earlier post, we reported on the phenomenon of decision fatigue – the fact that our brain has limited capacity with respect to making decisions.

This means: Limit the number of commitments you make. The best thing is to simply start with one. Now, what can we do to make this one New Year’s resolution happen? One idea is to motivate yourself to do something for your future as opposed to your present self. In a TED Talk, Daniel Goldstein explains what the present and future self is, how you can use commitment devices in order to discipline yourself and resist temptations, and what alternatives there are for commitment devices.




Apart from using commitment devices, there are a few other simple techniques we can use in order to really achieve our resolution. The study mentioned above found that men were more successful in achieving their goals when using goal setting (quantify your goal: what has to happen until when, e.g. lose one kilo per month) and focusing on the rewards associated with the goal (e.g. being more attractive when having lost some weight). Women were more successful when they told others about their plans and when they were given advice not to give up just because of a temporal reversion to the old habits and to continue their efforts.

Thus, what might help you succeed with your New Year’s resolutions is the following:
  • Make only ONE resolution. E.g., lose weight.
  • Set a SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-based. Make a concrete plan how you want to achieve the goal. E.g., lose 3 kilos until the 29th of February. In order to achieve this, avoid carbohydrates in the evening and go to the gym twice a week.
  • Tell others about your resolution and ask them for their support, and / or write it down for yourself. E.g., write your goal on a piece of paper and attach it to the fridge. Tell your partner about your plan and ask him / her not to buy you sweets when he / she goes shopping.
  • Don’t be frustrated by setbacks. Old habits take their time to be broken. Just stay on the track. And don’t be too strict with yourself. E.g., allow yourself a piece of chocolate every now and then, but stick to your plan even if you have eaten a whole bar of chocolate.

The cut-e scienceblog team wishes you a Happy New Year and success with your New Year’s resolutions!

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