Good resolutions, why so few succeedDecember 18, 2013
It is an old tradition on New Years Eve. Sitting around the Christmas tree with friends and family, overeating and making a New Years resolution. Quit smoking, lose weight, increase physical exercise, or more often count to ten. Nice anyway! A year later, we seem to have forgotten these resolutions completely, and of course we didn’t succeed. How is this process working, and what does it teach us?
A good resolution is a desire to structurally change something. Typically, the desire to change covers breaking habits. Behavior is usually produced in an automatic way by the nonconscious part of our brain. The nonconscious is fast and efficient, partly because it is based on using patterns. Behavior usually emerges out of chaining behavioral patterns to each other. The more we use a certain chain, the more efficiently and the more automated that behavior becomes.
Conscious versus nonconscious
The biggest problem in changing habits is that the desire for change originates from the conscious part of our system and that implementation has to be carried out by the nonconscious part. These two functions differ totally in the way they operate within the brain.
Learning is creating new connections
The conscious part can create new ideas and is very ethereal. The functioning of the nonconscious part is based on combining and recombining stored patterns. Learning a new pattern means that we have to create new physical connections between brain cells. The more we use that pattern, the stronger the connections become.
We can learn on command
Now back to that good resolution. It is much easier to simply wish for them than to create new connections. The good news is that we can learn on command. Just think about practicing new words from a foreign language. Each time we rehearse those words, our brain creates new connections.
We can only unlearn by not using
The bad news involves the unlearning. That’s a completely different process. Losing a physical connection can only succeed if it is no longer used. We are not able to forget or let go on command. Only when we neglect that foreign language and don’t speak it for some time, will we forget the newly acquired words.
Only consistent attention has an effect
Overall, there are two problems connected to habit changing. The first one is that an ethereal conscious desire seeks to achieve a change in the stable physical world of the nonconscious. That is only possible if the conscious part consistently references this. One inspiring idea around the Christmas tree is really insufficient to initiate a process of creating and disposing of connections between brain cells.
The second problem is even more serious: unlearning is only possible if a behavioral pattern is no longer used. Old habits which occasionally break through, seize the opportunity to reemerge. So we get into a vicious circle. The end result (ridding ourselves of a behavioral pattern) is also the way to achieve it (not using that pattern). Strict abstinence from a habit needs strict control over ourselves, something which our ethereal consciousness cannot guarantee. No wonder good resolutions don’t work.
We need a magical escape. After all, we want to enter the New Year with positive feelings. Here is a recipe for an instructive 2014.
- Make a wish. Distil the positive element from it.
- Translate this element into what you really want to achieve and be as specific as possible (learning has a much higher success rate than unlearning).
- Accept that you are who you are and that old patterns are strong (otherwise these old habits predominate again).
- Visualize concretely what you will do differently when the desire is fulfilled. Repeat this process for different occasions (this already establishes the first of the new connections in your brain).
- Create regular reminders of the resolution: for example, change things in your surroundings, replace the clock (a disturbed nonconscious process automatically calls consciousness), set a daily signal on your phone and ask others to give feedback.
- Organize evaluation moments in your diary to record and celebrate your progress.
Combine all these elements and together it should work.
I wish you all an instructive and above all safe 2014.
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