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4 Ways To Trick Your Brain Into Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions

Tip: Visualize your toughest resolution first.

4 Ways To Trick Your Brain Into Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions
[Photo: Flickr user Colleen Galvin]

Be honest: How is your progress so far on those New Year’s resolutions you lined up just a few weeks ago? As January wears on and the cold, dreary weather continues for many of us, sticking with your resolutions can quickly start to seem more challenging than you’d expected–and sometimes completely impossible.

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If you’ve made and broken countless resolutions in the past and are already struggling this year, don’t give up hope just yet. It simply might be time to take a different approach to your resolutions. Understanding a little bit more about how the brain reacts to rewards and motivations could make the difference between forming a new habit for life and giving into temptation or laziness after a few weeks.


Related: Your Brain’s Personal Trainer Would Give You This Advice


1. Visualize Your Goals

Your brain is programmed to regard any change in your usual habits as a threat and will resort to “survival mode” in response to the increased stress that a new experience brings with it. This instinctive reaction, caused by a rise in your body’s cortisol levels, will literally cause blood to be drawn away from your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is home to your higher executive functions. These functions are crucial to regulating emotions, thinking creatively, and communicating effectively–often the skills you need most in order to stay motivated to achieve your goals and improve yourself.

Visualization can be a helpful method for overriding this reaction–and it’s exactly what it sounds like: By imagining an experience before it happens, you can make the new scenario seem more familiar to your brain, which will be less likely to approach it as a threat. Researchers have also found that holding an image like this in your mind can have a longer-term effect on your behavior than simply writing out a list, because images follow different neural pathways than do language and conscious reasoning.

If you need a little help getting the hang of visualization, consider compiling a vision board or poster representing all the things you want to achieve in the coming year or month, from getting a pay raise to trying more new recipes. Print some images online–or cut them out from magazines you read–that evoke your goals, then paste them to a sheet of paper or poster that you can keep in view every day. Your vision board won’t just remind you of your goals frequently, it will also help you picture them in your mind more vividly.

Here’s a tip: Start by trying to imagine the hardest resolution first, since this will require the most brain power in order to overcome any temptation to let it slide.

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Related: 5 Habits For Staying Productive In The Dreariest Months Of The Year


2. Clarify (Or Ditch) A Resolution Or Two

One reason you might be lagging on your resolutions already is because they aren’t as clear as they should be. Obviously, effective visualization is easier when your goal is easy to picture. So review all the goals you’ve set and ask yourself whether you’ve given your brain a truly concrete target. For instance, rather than simply saying you will read or exercise more, tell yourself you’ll read one new book every month or go to the gym three times a week. Quantify whatever you can, and get specific!

By the same token, committing to multiple resolutions might seem more ambitious but can prove counterproductive if you hold certain goals half-heartedly relative to others. When trying to change your habits, it’s always better to focus your mental resources toward reinforcing just one new neural pathway needed to learn the new behavior. If you’re worried that your focus is divided, it’s time to figure out which competing resolutions you might want to ditch.


Related: 6 Secrets Of People Who Keep Their New Year’s Resolutions


3. Ask Yourself, “What Do I Have To Lose?”

Tap into the long-established psychological principle of “loss aversion,” which simply means that humans are inherently risk averse. Research has shown that we’re more likely to be motivated to avoid or recover a loss than to gain something we didn’t have before. In other words, most people would prefer to not lose $10 than to find $10. Studies have shown that certain losses can have twice the psychological impact as gains.

So it might just come down to reframing: Try rewording each of your  resolutions in terms of a loss you’re setting about to recover, rather than something novel you stand to gain. Maybe it’s as simple as thinking about your diet-and-exercise goal as regaining a target weight rathe than taking up a new workout program. Or perhaps you’re starting up an old hobby you’ve dropped, instead of picking up a new activity for the first time.

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Related: Lagging On Your Resolutions? Here’s How To Decide Which Ones To Abandon


4. Rack Up Small Wins On Your Way To The Big One

A gradual approach can help you overcome your brain’s natural built-in caution. Break your larger goal into smaller ones you can work toward daily, rather than aiming for a bigger, less tangible target. Maybe just writing a better to-do list, pushing yourself to be more outspoken, or reading up on your industry might help you toward your ultimate aim of getting promoted.

Look for small ways to be constantly proactive and positive in your thinking as you move incrementally toward your larger objective. Your brain will get the momentum it needs, and you’ll stay motivated for weeks and months to come.


Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor. Follow her on Twitter at @TaraSwart.