Resolutions and sustained behavioural change

24 January 2022

Why do we set them?

Resolutions are nothing new. Around 4000 years ago, the Babylonians would use the start of their new year to honour their gods, much like the Romans went on to do many centuries later. The beginning of the year signalled a rebirth and a chance to get on the right side of the gods. Our calendar resembled the Roman calendar where January 1st marks the start of a new year, the day we hope to begin our journey of change. We may not be honouring our gods, but we often make promises to ourselves, loved ones and those around us.

Are we hard wired to fail?

Among the myriad personal life goals, humans survive generally as positive and forward looking. We implore ourselves to improve. We aim to advance. We strive to succeed. So why do so few of us achieve our annual determinations?

One reason why we often fail at making change is that we are hoping to achieve our goals by just attacking them without going through the process of creating new neural pathways that we know is the way to affect real change. Changing our thinking is one of the first steps in changing our behaviour. Looking specifically at resolutions, our failure is predetermined purely by the way we set ourselves up – the failure is in the plan, not the execution. Yes, we are hardwired to fail if all we think we need to do to successfully make behavioural change is to write down a few goals and take a random, disorganised leap at them.

We are motivated by negative emotions – feelings of guilt, shame, regret. These motivate us to make a change, but not a long lasting, sustainable change – rather those short burst of momentary diversion.

Logical fallacies can trap our thinking. We wind up thinking 'well, it's all or nothing' so why bother. Once we fall into this cognitive trap, it's very hard to make those incremental positive changes as we're looking for that big burst of momentum to find dramatic change, that we know usually peters out a few months later (if we even get that far!). 

We go too big too early. Starting any sort of change process requires the task to be broken down into manageable chunks

Be realistic about how much change you can achieve. Don’t take on too much. This will hinder your chance to achieve sustainable change in one area of your life as you're unable to devote adequate attention to it.

You need to factor failure in as part of the process. We often forget that failing in the early stages of behaviour change is usually a given. Looking at failure as an opportunity for growth and change, rather than as an excuse to stop trying will inevitably lead to stronger commitment to the change process.

Why change is hard for our brain

We have behvioural patterns, ones we repeat to form habits. Imagine a field with tall, dense grass. There is a well-worn path through the middle – this path (neural pathway) has been laid by you, by a regular habit you have been repeating over and over again. You have trodden this path often, the grass is flat, the path is visible and easy to follow. What does it take to change this path? To create a new one? You need to forge a new path through the tall grass. It’s hard, you must thrash through the dense growth, slowly carving a path to walk. Once you’re through, you look back and your path is no longer visible. To flatten the grass, you will need to walk that path over and over again. You will often revert to taking the path more travelled as the brain will chose the option with less resistance. This is how your brain works in relation to creating new neural pathways, the process of habit formation.

Procrastination, unhelpful thinking and positive reinforcement

Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.

“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem,” said Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The particular nature of our aversion depends on the given task or situation. It may be due to something inherently unpleasant about the task itself — having to clean a dirty bathroom or organizing a long, boring spreadsheet for your boss. But it might also result from deeper feelings related to the task, such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, anxiety or insecurity. The latter is more likely when talking about behaviour change – it becomes personal and reflective.

Goal setting

We love an easy win. We often set ourselves small, achievable wins so that we can figuratively 'tick that box' and enjoy the rewards that come with that sense of completion. This is about going deeper than that – finding something that truly inspires you to make change. We need to start asking ourselves different questions. Rather than 'did you go to the gym today' - where we can tick that box – what about asking 'why are we going to the gym?'. Might it be to lose weight so that we have more energy to play with your children? To live longer? Look for the deeper motivation. Dig deep until you find the core motivator for you – that thing that will drive you forward to achieving these goals. It's about more than just ticking boxes.

A lot of it is in the way you frame your goals. Be positive, use positive language. The way our brain works is that by using negative language can trigger inhibition systems which might in turn lead to avoidance. Focus on your language – try removing the negatives, the 'I don'ts'  and replacing them with 'I do's'. Take charge of change, find agency.

You will encounter failure, it's inevitable. It's about what you do in that moment that's important. Most of us will slip in our attempt at achieving our goals. It's the self criticism and the guilt that we need to tackle so that we can stay motivated, resilient and goal-oriented. Plan for those moments

Strategies for success

Strong determinants for success are:

  • When the change is self-motivated
  • When the change is rooted in positive thinking as opposed to guilt, fear or regret
  • When the goals are specific (I will walk 3kms at least 3 days a week as opposed to ‘I will exercise’)
  • When you limit your goals to a manageable number
  • When you develop a practical, realistic plan for accomplishing your goals (If you work 80 hours a week, it's unlikely that you will have the time to walk 3 kms at least 3 days a week)
  • When you incorporate avoidance of triggers in your action plan
  • When you spend time with others who are positive role models for the change you're trying to make (those who do or don't have the habit or those who have successfully changed)

Eric Zimmer, a behaviour coach who delivered a TED talk on the challenges of behavioural change used an effective analogy relating to the game of Risk. He said that to affect real and lasting change, you need to:

  • take small continents first > start with a small task
  • concentrate your armies > chose a specific goal to target
  • make alliances and treatises > use support networks, friends and family

Some useful resources: