About 50% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions each year, and by now one-third have given up on them. Half will abandon their resolutions come summer, and when 2016 draws to a close only 12% will still be at it, says Richard Wiseman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire, U.K.

It is no surprise people have trouble staying with their resolutions. The most popular ones – lose weight, spend less/save more, get organized, quit smoking – challenge self-discipline. Often deeply ingrained habits must be overcome in order to exercise regularly, refuse naughty foods, curb spending, pass on that next cigarette. It is easy to doubt one’s own willpower, defined by the American Psychological Association as “the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals,” which is not always easy.

The Willpower Dilemma
“Most people think of willpower as forcing yourself to do what you don’t really want to do,” says psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of “The Willpower Instinct.”

 “We think about it as ‘I won’t power’ – I won’t smoke that, buy that, say that.’”

Dr. McGonigal, who teaches a willpower course at Stanford University, suggests reframing it as “I want” power defining where one believes energy and attention should focus. “We need to define our New Year’s resolutions in terms of what we want,” she says, “rather than in terms of what’s wrong with us that we need to fix.”

Guilt and self-criticism often cause
people to ditch their resolutions, says Dr. McGonigal. When someone feels guilty about skipping a workout, overeating or sneaking a smoke, they can lose their resolve. “The harder we are on ourselves when we have a setback,” she explains, “the more likely we are to have another, to say something like well, I’ve already broken my resolution so why not give in again.”

A Battle in the Brain
Resolutions typically involve setting a goal (such as “quit smoking”) that breaks a habit (smoking). Goal-setting, according to UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, Ph.D., starts in a conscious area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, which regulates good and bad behavior, among other functions. As new behaviors become habits, they migrate to the unconscious basal ganglia, which triggers habitual behaviors on certain cues. So if smoking is associated with having a beer with friends, the basal ganglia may trigger a cigarette craving the next time beer, friends and smoker-who-is-trying-to-quit all come together.

“The basal ganglia just keeps doing what it’s always been doing, and you go along for the ride,” says Dr. Korb, regardless of what the prefrontal cortex wants. The best way to change habits, he explains, is for the prefrontal cortex to override old habits that live in the basal ganglia with new ones that will eventually reside there.  

New Year’s Resolutions Are Not New
Ancient Babylonians designated their new year – in March, near the vernal equinox – as a time to make promises to the gods, repay debts, and return borrowed items. Early Roman officials made public declarations of loyalty to the emperor on January first, says Richard Alston, a professor of Roman history at Royal Holloway, University of London.

January is named for Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings who looks to the past and future, and on New Year’s Day all Roman citizens reflected on the past and looked to the year ahead. Whether the Babylonians and Romans had an easier time keeping their oaths and resolutions is likely unknowable.

Tips for Staying on Track
In modern times, changing habits is hard, so Drs. Korb, McGonigal and Wiseman offer suggestions for making and managing resolutions.  

Make one specific resolution. When the focus is on changing just one habit
or behavior using specific steps, explains Dr. Wiseman, the chances of success are greater. Instead of resolving broadly to exercise more, a goal of running on the treadmill for 45 minutes three times a week is more reasonable.

Tell friends and family. When people know about the aspiration, says Dr. Wiseman, it sets up a fear of failure – which is good, in this case – and also a sense of support.

Plan rewards along the way. Rewards help maintain our motivation, says Dr. McGonigal, and they do not have to be big or expensive: Buy a lottery ticket, watch a favorite show, indulge in a treat, he suggests. The reward should not conflict with the goal, though – for example, doughnuts may be a bad idea if the goal is losing weight.

Get plenty of sleep. Research has shown that a well-rested brain functions better in the face of willpower and self-control challenges, says Dr. McGonigal.  

Practice self-compassion. When trying to break old habits and establish new ones, one should be patient and kind with oneself, advises Dr. Korb. Self-criticism inevitably leads to anxiety, which can sabotage the whole effort.  

When old habits surface, keep up with the new ones. The basal ganglia – where those old habits reside – responds to repetition, explains Dr. Korb.  “When you fail in your resolution,” he says, “just go for it again. And again … and again, and eventually it’ll start to stick.”

Meg Evans

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...