Brain Dump: New Years’ resolutions

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | February 3, 2023

Art by Marisea Fisher (’24)

It’s that time of year again! One month since we eagerly set ambitious New Year’s resolutions to exercise more, eat healthily, spend less, and do yoga. But we’ve slowly become lazy, succumbing to the pressures of work and school and reverting to the comfort of our old ways; soon enough, the first week of February arrived. What happened to “new year, new me”? 

According to the U.S. News & World Report, almost 80% of resolutions fail to last through February — for example, almost 50% of new gym memberships are canceled by the end of January, according to a 2020 IHRSA study. Even systems like habit trackers are difficult to maintain due to the challenges our brains face when building new automated behaviors. No one is immune to the difficulties of habit-building, but it is easy to become indifferent to this cycle. Why do we falter every year, and how can we transform our goals into reality?

Habits form in a three-step process called a “habit loop.” The brain detects a trigger that signals to the basal ganglia—structures at the center of the brain—to then execute a certain routine behavior. The last step is a reward the brain detects (such as a positive benefit of the habit) that encourages the loop to repeat. What we struggle with when following through on New Year’s resolutions is altering pre-existing habits to become new, automated habits—essentially, straying from the path of least resistance.

Regular behaviors and decisions take time to transform into habits. The prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain in the frontal lobe responsible for executive function (alternatively known as cognitive skills), also plans and executes these novel behaviors. Before we set a pattern of reading twenty pages of a book per day, our prefrontal cortex makes the conscious decision to do so. However, this behavior must become automated for it to become a habit. Dr. Ann Graybiel, member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology McGovern Institute for Brain Research and an Institute Professor, explains that habits “free up your brain to do other things,” which is why the brain highly values them. The basal ganglia and other sections of the prefrontal cortex are responsible for automating the then newly-formed practice of reading twenty pages before falling asleep every day. 

Essentially, it is more cognitively taxing for your brain to form new neural connections between different regions to complete habit formation than to fall back on already-formed cognitive shortcuts. This phenomenon is currently quite immutable, but there are actionable ways to overcome these speed bumps.

The word “resolution” implies an all-or-nothing situation where you either triumph or fail to overcome the odds. Reframing the goal itself and your approach to the situation can alleviate this pressure. For example, avoiding vague goals like “be more peaceful” and instead focusing on actionable steps, such as meditating for ten minutes daily or staying off your phone during meals, can help you move forward. Just as your brain slowly rewires itself to build habits, you can make forward progress to influence this process.

Surrounding yourself with others who are focused on building similar habits can also help reinforce the behavior by encouraging the brain to associate it with the greater reward of social interaction. Going to the gym with friends or joining a book club can provide an even greater motivation to solidify the behaviors into habits.

Habits help us devote newly-available space to other endeavors—engaging in a new hobby, further developing critical thinking skills, or maybe learning a new recipe. The journey towards habit formation is also just as important as the result. The new year may be a nice milestone to center new habits around, but there are opportunities for fresh beginnings all around us. It can always be a “new day, slightly better me,” so why not treat today as the start of your new journey? 

Categories: Column, Science

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