Wishing to change yourself and better yourself is a fabulous and inspiring thing, I believe.

And it seems that’s also how most other people think: 50 % of all Americans for example set themselves a New Year’s resolution.

That’s quite astonishing! What’s not so great is that according to the researcher Richard Wiseman, 88 % of all those set resolutions from half of America and probably lots of other people in the world fail. That’s 156 million failed resolutions and disappointed minds every single year.

The sheer quantities of this certainly made me think. I wanted to understand better the reason that we are so rotten at maintaining our newly laid out resolutions and what we can do to effectively make them stick.

Here is the tangible science behind establishing a New Year’s resolution and more science on exactly how you can actually change yourself for the better:

Your human brain can’t handle New Year’s resolutions– here is the reason why

What we have to adhere to our New Year’s resolutions is self-discipline. Your brain cells that operate willpower lie in the prefrontal cerebral cortex, which is the region directly behind your forehead.

brain-prefrontal-cortexThat particular area of the brain is also in charge of staying focused, taking care of short-term memory and solving abstract tasks for example.

Now, when you set a New Year’s resolution, a huge amount of willpower is necessitated. It’s an amount that your human brain simply can’t handle. To put more scientifically, this is what’s happening inside your prefrontal cortex, best described through a Stanford experiment by Prof. Baba Shiv:

A group of undergraduate students were separated into 2 groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember. The other was given a seven-digit number to remember. Then, after a short promenade through the hall, they were provided the choice between two snacks: a slice of delicious chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. What’s most surprising: The students with 7-digit numbers to keep in mind were two times as likely to pick the slice of chocolate as compared to the students with the 2-digits.

The reasoning of why this happens? According to Prof. Shiv, it’s really obvious:

“Those additional numbers consumed valuable space in the brain– they were a “cognitive load”– making it that much harder to resist a decadent treat.”

So your prefrontal cortex that handles willpower is like a muscle, that needs to be trained, as Tony Schwartz always mentions. If you determine to train that muscle at the beginning of the new year with a resolution to stop smoking, start going to the gym, or lose lots of weight, that’s the equivalent of a 300 pound barbell you intend to lift with no previous training.

It’s no surprise that your brain can’t do the heavy lifting.

Resolutions vs. habits– why vague aspirations don’t get the job done

“What a mistake– the whole idea around New Year’s resolutions. Folks aren’t picking specific behaviors, they’re picking abstractions,” says BJ Fogg from Stanford University.

The problem is clear: any abstract goal you have that is not matched to a specific behavior is virtually impossible for your brain to focus on. Turning it into “instinctual,” which is the crucial aspect that will help you achieve any all new habit, is missing in 90 % of all New Year’s resolutions, which makes them so very likely to fail.

Rather, the key is to make any goal a habit first. And most significantly, make it a modest one. Here is a list of examples of exactly how this translates to a few of the 4 most typical new year’s resolutions:

  • Resolution: Quit smoking vs. Habit: Refrain from smoking that 1 cigarette you have each and every morning after breakfast
  • Resolution: Eat healthy food vs. Habit: Begin substituting that 1 everyday morning pastry for a banana
  • Resolution: Lose weight vs. Habit: Every evening soon after work, go for a 2-3 minute run or walk around the block.
  • Resolution: Manage stress vs. Habit: Meditate for 2-3 minutes every morning after you wake up.

By promptly breaking down each resolution and seeing what the smallest habit could be, your odds of succeeding will be 50 % higher. There is nothing more. You can make it so uncomplicated and effortless for yourself to create that habit that there is practically no way you can fail with it.

Ok, but now enough of why the dark and gloomy main reasons of new year’s resolutions don’t work. What can we really do to make them work?

The 4 steps to make New Year’s resolution stand

So if you’ve set yourself a few big new changes, here are among the most important things to think about to effectively change your behavior for a much better you:

1. Pick only one resolution

As Stanford’s Prof. Shiv explained with her “cognitive overload” experiment, adhering to more than just 1 New Year’s resolution is near impossible for your brain to handle. Instead, evaluate everything you’ve contemplated to change and pick the a single thing that’s most significant for you.

Then, release everything else, otherwise you’ll be picking the chocolate cake in every situation, instead of the choice that you strategize to make.

2. Take baby steps– make it a little habit

Since you’ve chosen one resolution, make certain to break down as far as you can, to the simplest task achievable. If your resolution is “going to the gym”, make it into the smallest habit conceivable that you can carry out in under 60 seconds.

BJ Fogg from Stanford created a great application exactly for this, called TinyHabits. It’s an exceptional way to get started with any new year’s resolution you desire:

3. Hold yourself responsible with regard to what you intend to change: Tell other people or write it down

In a study from 2007 conducted by researcher Evans, they found a striking interrelationship between boosted social support and reducing blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol. What does that have to do with New Year’s resolutions?

Well, it has substantiated as hammering confirmation that the people around you can have a significant influence on your behavior. So if you tell a few of your family and friends about the all new small habit you’ve developed, you are much more likely to adhere to it.

Another hint here is that writing it down not only makes you most likely to succeed with your new habit and in addition to that, increases your overall happiness.

4. Focus on the carrot, not the stick– constructive feedback and rewards increase your chance of success

A powerful study from the University of Chicago outlines how clearly positive feedback on any of your new habits will increase the probability of your success with your new habits and resolutions.

Hand in hand in this goes the fact that rewarding your own self for advances with your habits with things that make you feel great are a sure fire means to improve your success rate, according to Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute.

So treating yourself to an unwholesome treat after a few days of successful diet habits modifications is much more than appropriate if you really hope to make it through the other end.

Eric Barker also has a fantastic list of more details you can do in order to make sure your new resolutions will end well.

Quick last fact: Strong willpower is not a character trait

One surprisingly comforting and important last fact is that having strong willpower is not something we’re born with, as opposed to popular opinion.

“Research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn’t built for success.”

So much like your bicep has to be trained in order to grow stronger, so does the prefrontal cortex in your brain. The key is to make sure not to kick off lifting too heavy, as then we’re bound to drop everything on the floor with our new year’s resolutions.