Sticking to my exercise regime. Keeping up with those Spanish exercises on DuoLingo. Stop binge-watching “The Office”. Eating healthily. It’s only a few weeks into the new year and l’m already re-thinking my new year’s resolutions.
Most of us would agree that behavioral change is elusive. Two thoughts come to mind, one, “an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays motion, unless it is acted upon by a force” which is Newton’s 1st law of motion (Britannica, 2021). Two, "we are just creatures of habit." Creatures, i.e., driven more by instinct with minimal prefrontal cortex (PFC) action. The PFC being associated with executive functions such as cognitive control, attention, planning, decision-making, impulse inhibition, reasoning, and problem-solving (Fuster, 2015).
So it seems like short of a compelling external force, I can’t help but fall back on old behaviors without some purposeful activation of my higher-order cognitive functions to steer me away from my path of least resistance. It also doesn’t help that in today’s digital age, we all have too many options for things to do at any one time. This means staying on a task requires an intentional decision every time we’re tempted to do something else.
Resolutions can either be approach-oriented goals such as eating more vegetables and keeping up with exercise, or avoidance-oriented goals such as spending less or quitting a bad habit. Studies show that approach-oriented goals are more effective than avoidance-oriented ones (Oscarsson, Carlbring, Andersson, & Rozental, 2020), suggesting that when possible, we should perhaps reframe those “quit” goals as new habits to be formed instead. Another consideration for forming resolutions is applying one of the seven principles of highly effective people: begin with the end in mind (Covey, 2020). This means I shouldn’t just resolve simply to exercise more or eat more healthily. The goals need to be specific and tied to a realistic vision of what the end looks like. For the exercise goal, this could be an ongoing one like jogging 2 miles three times a week.
Here are some commonly cited pointers to help us new year resolvers along:
1. Watch those cues and lower the bar for the good habit to form
Many of our behaviors are based on and triggered by cues which can be an event, emotion, place or person. For instance, when I come home after work and turn on the TV, this is the end-of-the-day signal to wind down, and for me, it is a cue to take a trip to the fridge or pantry and reach for that bag of chips. Feelings of boredom can also cue mindless snacking. To counter this, I’ll need the cues to signal the new behavior. Instead of turning on the TV the minute I get home, I should do something else that takes me away from the TV, e.g., go out for a walk or tend to my plants. Cues should also be used to encourage us to form good habits. Some suggest putting running shoes by the bed as a cue to exercise early the next day. I’d also suggest lowering the bar for the new habit and wearing my running socks to bed, or replace the chips with readily accessible healthy snacks, so I don’t quit snacking, but snack more healthily.
2. Use frequent reinforcements and immediate feedback
Once we have started on the behavior, we need frequent reinforcements to see it through to completion. In the midst of my jog, I’m always tempted to quit and so must be fueled by frequent reinforcements such as encouraging self-talk, or immediate feedback of my incremental gains provided by the upward count of the number of steps or distance displayed on my fitness app. Listening to music to distract from the monotony of the jog also works well. The feeling of accomplishment at the end of the exercise can also be rewarding.
3. Get support or make a social commitment.
Sometimes we all need an extra push to stay on top of our resolutions. This is where others come in. In a large study conducted on new year’s resolutions, participants who had more support with their goals were more successful in attaining them. Compared to the no support group, these supported participants named at least one person that would support their progress and were given support in the form of follow-up emails and information and exercises on how to cope with potential hurdles when working towards their goals (Oscarsson, Carlbring, Andersson, & Rozental, 2020). If you can’t find anyone to exercise with, then at least create a social contract by letting a friend or family member know of your goals. This will count as support if you feel obliged to keep our word and follow through.
4. Just keep on keeping on, there is no fail
It is inevitable that we’ll have bad days, so we shouldn’t ditch the resolution just because we failed once, or twice, or thrice, or however many times. The important thing to do is just to keep moving. Besides, there are benefits in making new year’s resolutions:
So if you haven’t done so but still want to, it’s not too late to make some resolutions. Let us know how you're doing with your resolutions!
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021, July 23). Newton's laws of motion. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/Newtons-laws-of-motion
Covey, S. R., & Covey, S. (2020). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Schuster.
Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60(10), 2563-2582.
Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2015). Put your imperfections behind you: Temporal landmarks spur goal initiation when they signal new beginnings. Psychological science, 26(12), 1927-1936.
Fuster, J. (2015). The prefrontal cortex. Academic Press.
Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One, 15(12), e0234097.
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