- On December 31, 2015
It’s that time of year again to take stock of where we are, what we’ve done, and envision doing something different in the future. The popularity of setting New Year’s Resolutions speaks to our natural affinity for change. According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 45% of Americans set New Year’s resolutions, yet only 8% of those fully succeed.
Whether you are in the ‘resolution setter’ category or not, would you like to really be successful at what you’d like to change?
I would! I’m a setter and I also fall in the 74% who have infrequent or no success at achieving their resolutions.
I am committed to moving to the ‘successful’ side this year. After studying neuroscience and change for over a year now, I know too much about how the brain works to allow myself to get into a failing position again.
My old way:
- Go Big.
- Set Audacious Goals.
- Write down big list of changes I want to make.
- Deny the long-held habits (dysfunctional as they were) that I’ve created over the years.
- Beat myself up in my journal for failing to make progress.
- Resolve to do better tomorrow.
- End the year no closer to where I want to be than I was a year ago.
What I’ve learned:
1.Changing Habits is like bending steel with your bare hands. Like the Grand Canyon shaped by the flow of Colorado River over centuries (Can You Move the Grand Canyon?). The brain naturally wants to line up what you are doing with something it has done before to leave more room for addressing the unknowns, thus defaulting to our well-worn habits. I remember reading that the best way to start a ‘quit smoking’ goal is to go on vacation. Back home the same triggers are there and the brain goes on auto-pilot in responding to them with a cigarette. On vacation, the pattern is disrupted making it easier to change your response.
2.The brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Tackling multiple changes, like any attempt at multi-tasking, makes you less effective than focusing singularly on one task. (Try this multi-tasking exercise to see what I mean). The more choices we have the more ineffective we are at making them. Customers offered a choice of 6 kinds of jam purchased a jar more frequently than those offered a choice of 24 kinds. (Lyengar and Lepper, 2000, cited in Barry Scwartz’s paper, “Can there ever by too many flowers blooming?’)
3.Right and Left Hemisphere Integration. We must engage both our Right and Left hemisphere to put all our resources behind the change. Especially in western culture, we tend to rely too heavily on the left hemisphere of rationality, logical, and structure. Lists of change tasks, tracking schedules, and the like are helpful but insufficient to motivate us for the long term. The Right Hemisphere, home to creativity and values, must also engage to put context and vision to how the change task fits in the bigger picture of our life. Vision boards, metaphors, and stories can give your resolutions a long life.
4.Making changes requires Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create new connections. The brain’s ability to make new connections is increased by these five actions: getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, physical exercise, novelty, and focus. If ‘exercising more’ or ‘eating less’ is one of your resolutions, now it is tied in to the bigger picture of long-term brain health. No matter what your change goal, we still need to support the brain pattern changes we want to make by providing a good environment for the brain to operate at its most effective.
5.The importance of DO and BE. As a society, we tend to focus heavily on the ‘DO’: “In order to lose weight I will eat salad for lunch.” That’s a Do, a task. Specific? Yes. Measureable? Yes.
But if having salad for lunch makes you grumpy the rest of the day, it affects your ‘how am I BEING?’ state. If I’m managing my diet to eat better or lose weight, how do I want to BE when I am doing that?
- Do I act grumpy and deprived?
- Do I make others uncomfortable by judging what they are eating or gloating my superiority that I perceive I am making better choices than them?
- Or do I savor each bite of food?
- Do I allow myself a treat now and then?
- Do I display positivity and engagement?
- Am I aware of the shift in my emotional state this new way of Doing is having?
Having a “BE” intention connects our resolution to an inner desire to act in a certain way. It engages the Default Mode Network, that brain network that allows you to dream and make new connections from the data points of your life. (The “Do” part of goal achievement activates the Task Positive Network). When setting a new course of change, you will need courage, engagement, and innovation to fortify your resolve. It is too easy to let anger, frustration, or disappointment in our own failures settle into our attitude. A “BE” intention provides a long-term context for the impact we want to have on ourselves and others, bigger than task accomplishment.
An intention sets a desired standard and also recognizes our human frailty. As an example, “I know this change will be hard and I accept that I will not always accomplish the task I set every time, AND I will approach this with courage to be a more positive me.” Courage becomes my intention and puts the task in context of the bigger change it is representing—courage to live differently.
How does this change how I am approaching this New Year?
To DO: I get bored easily if I am not seeing progress, and I also have more than one thing I’d like to work on this year. I am picking one area that I want to change each month and setting one micro-habit to change in that area. I am tracking my progress in following that change, on both a tactical and emotional level, and appreciating myself with something honored when I sustain the change. On the 1st of each month, I’ve scheduled a goal review and update to set a new one for the upcoming month, sustaining one and beginning another.
To BE: I am setting an intention of how I want to be this year: Energizing Joy. Living a joy-filled life is important to me. I experience many people whose energy and verve for living seem to be totally sucked out of them, usually by work that is not fulfilling. Energizing joy is me living meaningfully, mindfully, and purpose driven, and finding deep fulfillment from that process, and this radiates to others and energizes them to make the changes they want to make.
I’ll keep you posted on how this is working.
On New Year’s Eve, I’ll be raising a toast to your change success in 2016!
Photo Credit: JMaliszewski, 2010. Himalaya Mountains near Gaumukh, India.