The start of a new year can feel like a fresh slate or an unwritten book. It’s a chance for many of us to resolve to do things better (eating, exercising) or to stop doing certain things altogether (smoking). But most people don’t succeed in sticking to their resolutions in the long term, and the reason might surprise you. It’s not always a question of lacking willpower or being lazy. Keeping resolutions makes your brain work hard, and that mental effort takes time and practice.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that your brain uses more than one decision-making system to build and regulate habit-forming and goal-directed behaviors. One system looks at the steps you take to make a decision. Another evaluates your actions and decides when you need to change a new behavior in order to receive a reward.
Here’s where the hard work comes in: The researchers explain that goal-directed behavior requires mental energy and planning. You have to plan ahead before making decisions to know how to reach your goal. Let’s say, for example, you’re trying to cut back on sweets and are invited to a party. If you want to enjoy a dessert at the party but don’t want to completely ignore your resolution, you’ll need to plan to eat less sugar during the rest of the day. Over time, as you keep making more goal-oriented decisions, the choices become more automatic.
Another study suggests that nerve cells stick together when you form a habit that you’ve enjoyed (such as eating dessert after dinner). The strong bond they create can be tough to break, and—like getting up early to go running or sticking to that diet—it isn’t always easy. This is especially the case when your emotions take over and you feel resentful or angry at the challenging changes you’re trying to make. Being mindful and keeping your emotions out of the decision-making process can help. Your brain, like your body, just needs time to adjust to your new routines.
Good luck and happy new year.