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New Year’s resolutions rarely stick, but if you approach them correctly, you’ll succeed

Photo by Marta Kierkus

The tradition of setting New Year’s resolutions began about 4,000 years ago by the Babylonians and are represented by Janus, a two-faced god with one face looking back into the old year and the other looking forward into the future. Since then, the New Year has come to mark a time of renewal and a sense of self-reinvention.

Every year around the end of December, people start to pledge New Year’s resolutions to all who will listen, as if the spoken word will make those resolutions stick. The social pressure to have a resolution increases as the end of the year approaches. But what is it about Jan. 1 that makes us want to fix our problems? And why are we making these resolutions?

The most common New Year’s resolutions are focused on physical well-being: eating healthy food, losing weight, exercising more, and drinking less. However, other goals might be emotionally or monetarily motivated: taking the time to see old friends, planning a trip, volunteering, being more spiritual, and budgeting more effectively.

For the first few weeks of January, these resolutions stick. The gyms are packed, the fridge is full of fruits and vegetables, and we have a renewed sense of motivation. But fast forward a few more weeks, and these resolutions quickly become relics of New Year’s past. According to blogger and author Jonah Lehrer in an article published in the Wall Street Journal, about 88 per cent of all New Year’s resolutions will be abandoned throughout the year.

Margarita Tartakovsky, associate editor of Psych Central, acknowledges that the concept of a resolution often make us feel guilty, like we’ve been doing something wrong for the past year. So when we make a resolution, why do we do it? Tartakovsky believes it has a lot to do with tradition, since a resolution is something we can share with others.

It also provides a social reassurance and benchmark comparison that we’re on the right track with respect to our peers. Jan. 1 provides a concrete time and date for our brain to prepare for these new implementations. Another reason is the allure of starting the year from scratch. It’s a time to recreate ourselves, think about the future, and set goals.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic to overcome those dead-end resolutions. Research by neuroeconomics professor Baba Shiv of Stanford University suggests our brains can only handle so much information at one time. Your willpower, which makes you go to the gym or skip the fast food line, can only handle so many directions. Since the brain must balance work, school, friends, family, and much more, the sudden demand of unspecific goals, or simply too many goals, overloads your brain.

Shiv also suggests that the brain struggles to accommodate changes that do not have an immediate solution. If a resolution is to be sustainable in the long-term, it has to be broken down into manageable pieces.

Lehrer comments that the brain is a muscle, which means it needs to be exercised. Just like trying to deadlift 200 pounds your first time at the gym won’t happen, telling your brain to suddenly accept radical, random goals won’t either.

Author Sid Savara recommends that we take the time to consider lifestyle changes we want to strive for over the next year, two years, five years, and 10 years. We can then make gradual changes over an extended period of time, with many checkpoints along the way. It’s crucial to break down those resolutions into habits, which are the smaller, more manageable chunks that really show achievable results.

For example, a resolution of eating healthier isn’t quite the same as changing a habit, such as eating meals at regular times and quitting the cake at midnight. By writing down specific, manageable, and realistic goals, you’ll find it easier to gradually achieve your goals and stick with them.

As one more solution to your New Year’s resolution, keep in mind that these goals don’t have to be immediately put into place on Jan. 1. As long as you plan ahead, any time of the year is a good time to start.