It’s that time of year again, as we watch an old year slip into a memory and prepare to greet a brand new year, pulsing with possibilities, each new day waiting like a blank page to be filled with the next chapter of our life. The promise of a fresh start, like new snow unsullied by the footprints of our past mistakes, gives us an opportunity to leave behind that which no longer serves us and to focus on goals that remain unaccomplished, and this is probably the reason why around 50% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions. Yet for many of us, these resolutions are soon forgotten and seldom achieved; old habits are carried over to taint the new year and we soon become immersed in the quicksand of old beliefs, allowing old cycles to surface and be perpetuated once more.

Is there any point, then, in making New Year’s Resolutions, or is this a pointless exercise that merely serves to highlight our inadequacies and lack of willpower?

Well, if you are one who barely manages to make it until the end of January without re-lighting that cigarette, or breaking that diet, or returning to that destructive relationship, then take heart: you are not alone, as 88% of all those that set resolutions do not manage to achieve them. Safety in numbers is not much of a consolation, however, and really the burning issue here is why it appears to be so difficult to attain our goals. Science, it appears, can provide the answer to this question, and can provide strategies to help us find more success with future "resolutions."

The area of the brain that handles our willpower is the prefrontal cortex located just behind the forehead; this, like other muscles in the body, needs to be trained and developed in order to perform efficiently. For those who struggle with willpower, presenting our brains with a long list of difficult propositions is similar to asking an unfit person to run a marathon without any training. This concept was put to the test in a research study performed by Professor Baba Shiv, the Sanwa Bank Limited professor of marketing, and director of the Strategic Marketing Management Executive Program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Prof. Shiv took a group of students and gave one half a two digit number to remember. The other half were given a much longer, seven digit number to remember. A short time later, they were put into a situation where willpower was required, namely the choice between a healthy or unhealthy snack. It was found that those students who had more to remember were twice as likely to choose the unhealthy slice of chocolate cake over the healthier piece of fruit.

“Those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert,” explained Prof. Shiv.

So, if we have to consciously think about keeping a resolution then it is more likely to be doomed to failure according to B.J. Hogg of Stanford; more abstract ideas that are not linked to specific behaviors are far more difficult for our brains to focus on.

“What a mistake – the whole idea around New Year’s resolutions. People aren’t picking specific behaviors, they’re picking abstractions,” said Fogg.

Breaking down each resolution into its smallest possible state initially makes it far more achievable and provides more clarity. The secret, is to keep the chosen tasks small, incorporating them into already established habits so that they more readily become a part of our daily lives, as the brain naturally gravitates towards the familiar, instinctive behavior patterns.

Similarly, building on established successes has also been found to help individuals succeed with new goals; a study by Koo and Fishbach in 2008 discovered that student who focused on past achievements were more motivated to continue and persevere with new challenges.

If we perceive our resolutions as intentions, and visualise ourselves actually completing the tasks, then it is thought that we may have more chance of a successful outcome. The "power of intention" is now a well-known force popularised by books such as The Secret, (2006) by Rhonda Byrne, perceived by some to be a "new-age" concept, but there are practical aspects to this idea which were noted in a study by Gollwitzer and Sheeran in 2006. They found that subjects who visualised themselves in anticipated situations involving their chosen goals were more likely to have devised coping strategies and planned alternatives for when the situations actually occurred in their lives. Also, by imagining themselves overcoming the temptation or achieving their goals, their brains had had already recognised the new way of thinking or acting as familiar, making it easier to adopt in reality.

So, it seems that "small steps" can lead to the greatest leaps forward in our lives. Concentrating on our successes, however small, will cause us to feel better about ourselves and more confident that we can achieve greater things in the future. Making one tiny resolution that we manage to keep must surely be better than writing a long list of worthy endeavours that only succeed in confusing our brains and demoralising us when we reflect on our apparent failures.

We here at Unknown Country wish all of our subscribers and readers a very Happy New Year, and every success with their new year’s resolutions. Why not take one small step today and subscribe to our unique little community?

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