While you may have felt certain that you would fulfill your New Year’s resolution when you first set it, you might be feeling differently now that we’re nearly halfway through January. Neuroscience tells us that maintaining the motivation and focus needed to change a behavior can be very difficult, with most people reverting to their old habits within a matter of weeks.
To help you stick to your New Years’ resolution, here are six tips from neuroscientist Vera Ludwig to help you along the way.
Pay attention: Rather than force yourself to do things differently, Ludwig suggests you first observe your habits through mindfulness. “Ask yourself, ‘What does my body feel like? Does it have a desire to move more? To stretch more? How does it really feel when I eat all this food?’ And then just observe the answers. That allows us to try out different behaviors.”
Write it down: When Ludwig was trying to accomplish a goal of going on a daily run, she wrote down any thought she had each day that might have prevented her from meeting her goal. For instance, she would write that it is too cold outside, or that she was feeling dread. “The funniest thought that kept repeating was this feeling of dread,” she says. “I did finish what I set out to do, but I also observed that I had set a goal that was too hard for me.”
Set reasonable goals: If you set a goal that is too ambitious, it can lead to harsh self-criticism. According to Ludwig, it’s better to set a reasonable goal and be less forceful when it comes to achieving it. Ask yourself: “What happens to my body and my well-being if I take a more self-compassionate approach to changing habits?” If you set a goal that is too ambitious, it can lead to harsh self-criticism.
Give it time: In an unpublished study from Ludwig and her colleagues at Brown University, the authors found that repeated awareness of behavior changed its reward value. However, paying attention fewer than 10 times did not always lead to desirable changes for the study subjects. That means you must give yourself time to adapt to new habits.
Practice meditation: Ludwig says just five or 10 minutes of daily meditation can help you achieve your New Year’s resolution. She believes that “being present with an immediate experience might allow you to start acting in ways that will help you achieve your goals without forcing yourself.” Ludwig adds that “you can only work toward your goals in the here and now; being present might make the process more enjoyable.”
Cut yourself some slack: Let’s be honest. 2020 was a difficult year for all of us, and the emotions we have experienced can make it more difficult to summon the willpower to achieve our goals. Don’t be too hard on yourself on the days where emotions may be holding you back. Experience those emotions, and try again the next day.