It’s that time of year again, when many people
resolve to learn a new skill, give up something that’s bad for them, or simply put more effort
in at school. But do New Year’s resolutions work?
Research by British psychologist Richard Wiseman in 2007 has shown that 88% of all resolutions
end in failure. Many continue to make the same resolutions year in and year out.
So why are New Year’s resolutions so hard to keep?
Our prefrontal cortex, a small area in the brain, is responsible for our willpower. The
prefrontal cortex is pretty busy. It not only has to keep our New Year’s resolutions on
track, it also has to take charge of short term memory, solving abstract problems and
keeping us focused. It’s not a lack of discipline, it’s your overworked brain being too busy.
In one experiment several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group of
students was given a 2-digit number to remember, while the other group had to memorise a 7-digit
figure. They were then instructed to walk down a hall where they were each offered a
snack of either a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. The students with
seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given
two digits. The reason, according to researchers, is that those extra numbers took up valuable
space in the brain, they were a “cognitive load”, making it that much harder to resist
a dessert. So now we know what doesn’t work when it comes
to keeping those resolutions, let’s take a look at what might help.
Researchers suggest we think of willpower as a muscle that needs to be strengthened.
They suggest that it might be possible to strengthen willpower by exercising it.
In one experiment, they asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks, thereby
practicing mental discipline in one area. The students showed a marked improvement on
subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn’t work
on posture control. If you concentrate on one thing at a time, this will strengthen
you willpower in other areas. The key is not to overload your prefrontal cortex.
Now that you’ve picked one resolution, make sure to break down as far as you can, to the
simplest task possible. If your goal is to lose 15kg this year, break it up into segments
of half kg per week or 2 kg per month. Above all, don’t use your resolutions as a
stick to beat yourself with. Ditch the negative connotations and instead focus on what those
small changes will bring to your life in a positive way in the coming year.
So what’s your New Year’s resolution? Leave a comment below and subscribe for more videos.