Brainy resolutions – How to keep your new year resolutions!

I like new year resolutions. Its an once-a-year chance to wipe off all the baggage and start fresh. But most of us struggle to keep them. A friend said “My last year resolutions look shiny and new, I hardly used them!”.

Most resolutions relate to health, wealth and family. The common theme being happiness. We yearn to be happy. Somehow being happy is a lot work (surprisingly, that’s not how things were as children).

So, coming to new year resolutions, what happens to them? Why do we have problems keeping them?

There are tons of online tips to help keep them, but we are going to look at what happens to us internally that helps keep it or break it. A resolution is related to a personal habit/behavior – something you don’t have today but have the desire for. Since habits form in our brain, an understanding of how we are wired helps in knowing how to create and maintain habits.

Our brain controls our physical and mental activities. Particularly important to our discussion are two brain subsystems that control our behavior.

a) Prefrontal cortex that controls cognition and discrimination and
b) Limbic system (which includes hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus) that controls our emotional, reflexive and memory response.

In simpler terms, the former is the rational or thinking brain and the latter the emotional or reflexive brain. The important thing to remember is they are located in separate parts of the brain. Malfunction in one may not affect the other. They act almost independently while co-ordinating with each other for complex functions.

Why do we need to know this? You do, bear with me.

There is another fact you need to know about these two parts of the brain. The emotional brain is wired to respond reflexively. Your instincts are part of this brain. Apart from controlling your heart beat, temperature and things that happen automatically without your active knowledge, this brain is the seat of pleasure & pain, emotions, and memory. It also controls an important thing required to keep your resolution – motivation (to keep your resolution) and another thing that breaks your resolution – temptation.

In contrast, the rational thinking brain controls decision making, problem solving, social behavior, judgment, control etc., When you face a dilemma between two choices, this part of the brain helps you decide the right answer. It is also the source of an important thing required to keep your resolution – willpower (to stick to your resolution)

So, when you face a dilemma that threatens a resolution like exercise (willpower) or chocolate cake (temptation), these two separate parts of the brain are internally in a tug of war. Who wins will decide whether you keep your resolution or not.

How do you know who will win this tug-of-war?

It depends..

Each of us is wired differently. if you are wired stronger emotionally, your temptations usually wins. And for the lucky few who are cognitively stronger they have the power to resist.

But an interesting scenario is what if both parts are equally balanced? who will win?

In this case it depends on your state of mind. In today’s complex world (compared to neanderthals) our brain faces a lot of cognitive demand. Each waking moment, we deal with complex issues and tasks that require the use of the rational, thinking brain. So, when the issue of exercise vs. chocolate cake comes up and if your rational brain is free, then usually it wins but if it is tired or busy with some other task, your emotional brain wins.

Baba Shiv, a Stanford professor, illustrates this fact in his interesting research. In an experiment, he called two groups of students and asked the first group to remember a 2 digit number and the second group to remember a 7 digit number. when they were asked to walk down the hall, they were presented with two snack options – a chocolate cake or a fruit salad. The group with 7 digit number were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake as students given two digit numbers. The reason is that the extra 5 digits occupied their rational brain weakening willpower and making them vulnerable to resist the temptation (stemming from the emotional brain). (read more on this study here)

The tug of war is clearly won by the emotional brain.

Before we go back to resolutions, let’s recap what we have covered so far. We now know that there is a tug of war between willpower and temptation going on in two separate parts of the brain. We also know that the rational brain in more likely to be overloaded or tired given our stressful, complex lifestyle and that makes us vulnerable to temptations controlled by our emotional brain.

So the final question – is this a lost cause? is there no way to win over the emotional brain?

Yes you can.

In the above discussion, the emotional brain was unfairly projected as evil that brings us down on our knees and forsake our resolutions. This is far from the truth. Emotional brain also controls motivation. Looked from a positive sense, it is a strong force that motivates us to do superhuman feats. We conquer mountains because of the emotional brain. In fact, in these cases, our rational brain is the dampener, the skeptic and the nay-sayer.

But we don’t see emotions as our strength when dealing with resolutions for 2 reasons:

1) Resolutions are new habits. They are still not part of your memory & emotional system. There is a time period when your resolution is a “learned behavior” relying heavily on the willpower of your rational (cognitive) brain. Until it becomes part of your memory, emotional brain can’t give you enough motivational help.

2) Until your resolution becomes part of your memory (becoming a habit), it could be a threat because, commonly, your resolutions replace an existing (undesirable) habit which is already a part of your emotional system. Your emotional brain’s initial response will be to fight. But once you crossed the hurdle and make your resolution a habit, the emotional brain will support it.

So if you hope to keep your resolution purely on your will power and rationality, you will fail. You need to counter your emotional brain’s initial resistance and convert the temptation to motivation (both these forces come from the same limbic system part of your brain). Here’s how you can do it.

– Your resolution must have a strong emotional hook so that emotional brain supports (and not fight) your resolution.
– This could be a positive hook like visualizing the happy end state if you stick with the resolution (a picture of yourself 10 lbs leaner, a picture of the vacation place)
– This could also be a negative emotional hook like committing yourself financially or publicly. If you commit publicly that you will run a marathon, you are likely to stick to it to avoid loss of face. If you sign-up for a class, you are likely to stick to it to avoid losing the money.
– Emotional brain also builds memory based on constant feedback – so reinforce small things you do, think or say at every step, walk through your progress frequently. Ritualize your resolution as part of your daily routine.

The above tips not only neutralizes the initial resistance of emotional brain but also creates habits faster. Once your resolution becomes a habit, the emotional brain becomes a motivator. And when the emotional brain becomes your motivator, there’s no stopping you!

Here’s wishing you a great year and luck on your resolutions!

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