8 ways to trick your brain into keeping your New Year’s resolutions

When setting a resolution, the dopaminergic reward systems of your brain become more active. The challenge is keeping that up over the long haul.

8 ways to trick your brain into keeping your New Year’s resolutions
[Photo: Garidy Sanders/Unsplash]

Setting a New Year’s resolution isn’t just socially accepted; it’s culturally encouraged. During the process your brain places more subjective value on completing a new goal, and you want it more in the moment, says Spencer Gerrol, CEO of SPARK Neuro, a neuroscience consulting agency


It also sets off lots of activity in your brain. “When setting a highly desired resolution, your dopaminergic reward systems—the orbitofrontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex—become more active,” he says. “The issue then becomes keeping that brain activity directed toward the new goal over the long haul.”

Unfortunately, a lot of things get in the way, which is why most of us fail. “Behavior change doesn’t happen in the setting of a goal,” says Gerrol. “You have to execute activities over a course of time, and that’s where you run into issues. For example, how much do you like the new behaviors? How hard are they? Is the goal intrinsically motivated? Or did somebody else impose it? These compete with each other.”

In addition, our brains have been conditioned to seek out quick dopamine hits, especially things you’ve already experienced that were pleasurable or rewarding, like binging Netflix or browsing social media.

“Maybe you want to go to the gym, but your brain wants to see if someone liked your Facebook post,” says Gerrol. “These activities compete for same resources. What happens is that the goals people want to achieve are disconnected by what they want in the short term.”

If you know the challenge exists when you set your goal, you have to be ready to tackle the things that will cause you to lose momentum. “You need a whole new strategy,” says Gerrol.

Here are eight things you can do to override your brain’s tendencies and stick to your New Year’s resolution:


1. Make sure you want the goal

The first thing is to make sure your goal is intrinsic instead of extrinsic, says Gerrol. “Wanting the goal for yourself instead of doing it for someone else or feeling like you should is a key thing to make a goal successful.”

2. Make sure it’s challenging but not too hard

Make sure the goal is at the optimal level of challenge. “If the goal is not challenging enough, then you may lose your motivation because it’s too easy and less fun,” says Gerrol. “People set the bar at the wrong place. What they think is easy is harder than they realize. If it’s too challenging, it’s not realistic.”

3. Don’t rely on willpower

Too often we set a goal and rely on determination and grit to achieve it. “Willpower takes an incredible amount of cognitive effort,” says Gerrol. “You have to remind yourself every day and be strong to make it happen. Without the right level of reward, it becomes unsustainable.”

4. Break the goal into small chunks

When setting a big goal, you need to break it into small steps to get a release of dopamine in the brain when you accomplish them. Keep a journal, maintain a checklist, or graph your results.

“When a goal is so far away, you don’t get that burst of pleasure,” says Gerrol. “Pause at each smaller goal and celebrate success at each stage. You need to measure your progress as a way of tracking success.”

5. Look at historical progress

Another element is to look back at your progress over time. “It’s important to look at how far you’ve come,” says Gerrol. “You accomplish two things by doing this. You get dopamine every time you check a milestone. And you get another release when you look at your total progress.”


6. Create a reward system

The brain reacts positively to rewards, both tangible and intangible. Gerrol suggests setting up a system where you recognize your work. One way is to get positive reinforcement from your social circle.

“A pat on the back matters,” he says. “It can be from your social circle on an online community chasing the same goal.”

Another way to stick to your resolution is to give yourself a real reward. “Create an external milestone attached to a gift,” says Gerrol. “It shouldn’t be just one big one, but small ones along the way.”

7. Attach your goal to your identity

Frame your goal in terms of your value system; who you are as a person, suggests Gerrol. For example, if you want to spend less time on your phone and more time present with the people around you, saying out loud, “I’m someone who values my family over my phone,” can help keep you aligned to your goal.

Then repeat that phrasing of the goal like a mantra regularly to keep the goal framed in terms of who you are and what you truly care about. This process makes an otherwise surface-level goal more deeply grounded.

“We suffer from cognitive dissonance,” says Gerrol. “Our behaviors contradict our values. What you’re doing and what you think is right may be different, but you rationalize it. Bringing it to your attention makes you less likely to go the route of rationalizing and change the behavior instead. It needs to come from a genuine place to work.”


8. Find an accountability buddy

Finally, your goal should be socially grounded; if your goal helps others, causes others to rely on you, or is reinforced and encouraged by others, you are more likely to stick to it.

“Yes, peer pressure has its place,” say Gerrol. “The more your resolution is consistently positively reinforced by your friends, the more you will stick to it.”