The New Year is here and for many of us this is a time of reflection. An opportunity to release what no longer serves us and set goals and intentions for the coming year.
Yet with almost 50% of Americans making New Year’s resolutions, close to 90% of those resolutions are never realized.
It’s no surprise when you consider that for a resolution to be successful it takes willpower. Willpower is located in the area of our brain (prefrontal cortex) that handles abstract tasks, short-term memory and staying focused among other things. Resolutions (especially when we make so many) overwhelm the prefrontal cortex, which like a muscle, needs to be exercised and trained to handle this cognitive load. Kinda like participating in a triathlon before learning how to swim.
To make things more clear; It’s almost impossible for your brain to focus on abstract goals that are not already connected to a specific behavior. The key is to make our goal intuitive, second nature, habitual.
How do we actualize these lofty aspirations? Read on…it’s easier than you think.
Reflection: Yes, this is the time we look back at the past year and… beat ourselves up for what we didn’t do. Wince at our perceived failures. Say hello to regret, remorse and self-judgment. Sound like you? This can be a familiar refrain for many of us, but with good reason. Did you know we are programmed to remember and concentrate on the negative MORE than the positive? We think about negative emotions longer, more vividly and in more detail than positive ones.
Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University explains,”As with many other quirks of the human psyche, there may be an evolutionary basis for this. Those who are “more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased the probability of passing along their genes,” – “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”
So now that we know ‘why’ we ruminate on the negative what can we do to clear the air and start with a clean slate?
Sometimes You Get The Best Light From A Fire. This may seem a bit metaphysical and woo-woo but keep in mind that this concept has existed since ancient times. Writing down all of the issues, events and emotions that no longer serve you and throwing the paper into a flame has been seen as a cleansing force that allows us to release the old events of our lives and clear the path for new beginnings. Of course exercising safety and caution is a given.
The Gratitude Jar: Since we’re programmed to concentrate on the negative more than the positive, this is the perfect way to counteract that survival mentality. Find a jar, a box, an old butter container with a slit in the top, whatever speaks to you (decorate it if the mood strikes) and set it somewhere convenient along with paper and pens (you can add artistic flare here as well with colored pens/torn paper etc.).
When something good, great, momentous, funny or amazing happens – write it down and stuff it in your gratitude container. The physical act of writing things down brings more focus to it. It may be hard to be grateful in difficult or painful times, but even the smallest thing matters. Next New Year’s day take out the papers and read them. Believe me, it will far outweigh the negative ruminations and set the tone for a new, exciting year!
Setting Intentions: We’ve talked about willpower and making abstract goals successful by connecting them to behaviors. To make any goal a habit we need to start with only one. Yes, that’s right, one goal at a time! (Your prefrontal lobe will thank you). Once we’ve set the goal we need to take small, easily attainable steps toward success. As we complete each step we can adjust the increment of the next step accordingly. (Keep a journal of your “wins”, it will serve as a constant reminder of your success.)
Leo Widrich has an excellent example of this in his article: The Science of New Year’s Resolutions: Why 88% fail and how to make them work.
“Here is a list of examples of how this translates to some of the 4 most common New Year’s resolutions:
Resolution: Quit smoking vs. Habit: Only stop smoking that 1 cigarette you have every morning after breakfast
Resolution: Eat healthy food vs. Habit: Start substituting that 1 daily morning pastry for a banana
Resolution: Lose Weight vs. Habit: Every evening 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 immediately breaking down each resolution and seeing what the smallest habit could be, your chances of succeeding will be 50% higher.”
Hack Your Brain and Bring on the Rewards: Shake things up and make some new neural pathways. Our brains strive to be as efficient as possible and that means our neural pathways are quite happy playing with the same old habits. The good news is that our ‘fear of change’ can be bribed into silence by our ‘pleasure at rewards’! When we reward ourselves we feel good and a University of Chicago study shows positive feedback increases the likelihood of successful new habits.
Ben Thomas tells us in his Huffington Post article – How to Stick to Your Resolutions by Hacking Your Brain: “ …psychologists suggest giving yourself little rewards, like a dinner out or a drive in the countryside, every time you meet a milestone or step outside your comfort zone. The more you reshape your expectations of yourself and reward yourself when you defy those old limits, the more you’ll find yourself sticking to your goals.”
Here are some more ways to form new habits:
This is not an all or nothing proposition, it is a continuing step by step lifestyle change.
Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH, a family physician in Lexington, Kentucky, and founder and medical director of The Mommy MD Guides points out. “Every decision that I make moves me closer to one end of the continuum (good health) or the other (poor health),” she says. “For instance, drinking a soda would move me in the wrong direction, while drinking a glass of water would move me in the right direction. By making small, positive decisions, I move closer and closer to good health.”
Get back into the Kitchen….rather than engaging in unhealthy fad diets, resolve to take back control of the nutritional quality of your meals. Use fresh ingredients and try new recipes. Involve your family and make it fun. You’ll not only be healthier you’ll be happier!
A lot of us ‘add’ exercise to our lives when and if we can find the time. By incorporating small activities into our routine we form new healthier habits before we know it. (and there’s less sweating). Climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator, parking farther out in the store parking lot, jogging while watching tv…you get the idea. This doesn’t mean you should forego regular exercise, but again, it’s all about taking steps.
Chi Gong is also growing in popularity and benefits all ages and body types and will yield positive results even for those who already have a longstanding exercise regime.
Exercise extends to breathing as well. Andrew Weil emphasizes the importance of breathing techniques that offer a “ drug-free way to help lower your blood pressure, calm a racing heart, or settle an upset digestive system. At first, the effects are subtle, but they will gain power the more you repeat them. Whether you want to address health problems or just relax and reduce stress, make this the year to learn and practice these breathing techniques.
There is no question the age of electronics has ushered in … media overload. What would happen if someone couldn’t reach us, if we couldn’t see everyone’s reaction to life every moment of the day? If the media wasn’t a constant barrage in the background of our living rooms, dens and even our bedrooms?
Recent studies are showing that stress rates are higher than ever and technology overload can increase health risks such as social anxiety (no surprise here), burn-out, depression and even allergies. Not to mention our underused imaginations.
Slow down and unplug. Spend time every day in a “no technology zone”. An hour with no cell phone, no computer, no television, no e-reader, no video games. Make it a household habit. Breathe, meditate, talk, relax. You just might find yourself spending less time with your electronics and more time getting to know YOU!
This goes hand in hand with time management –which we’ll save for a future article.
Positive energy flows much better when there is less clutter, in our minds and in our environment. You will reduce stress and feel happier when you reduce any energy sapping clutter that might surround you.
There are many new and improved ways to organize any area of your home. If you’re not sure where to start or feel overwhelmed just check out a few organization blogs and start with one drawer or one closet at a time. You might be surprised at what you’ll find.
A Final Thought
Giving. Want a boost in your “eudemonic” well-being. Studies conducted by Duke University showed that participants who do volunteer work have an increased sense of their life purpose. Of course there is also the instant gratification of donating time and money where it’s needed, to a person or group who has nothing to give you in return but perhaps a thank you and a smile.
With so many opportunities for giving you can easily make this a habit no matter how busy you are or what your financial situation. The potential is…well limitless. You can start small with a few Random Acts of Kindness. As simple as holding the door for someone, letting a car in front of you in traffic (with a smile) or taking your neighbors trash to the curb as you take yours.
You could volunteer at a food bank, watch your neighbor’s children for a few hours so the adults can have some free time, volunteer for an organization working for social change. Donate clothing you no longer wear and excess household items to a local charity. Help with the environment; donate old blankets to a local shelter or veterinarian’s office. The list goes on and on.
You can find many more ideas on the web. (Instead of giving my Mother a traditional birthday gift last year for her 80th birthday we (my family – spread across the world)) started a new tradition (habit) of doing Random Acts of Kindness for every year of her life – each of us took photos and then I made her a video. We even included her in the 80th act of Kindness by taking her to deliver cookies to the local fire station. She had no idea that it would be the last slide in her video. She said it was the best gift she had received in all of her 80 years!)
Don’t forget your co-workers, friends and family. You’ll love the way you feel.
Miraculous things happen when we embrace inner vibrational alignment; loving and excepting ourselves for the perfectly imperfect beings that we are!
So….what are you waiting for..you’ve got new neural pathways to forge…
Ready, Set Your Intentions, and GO!