It’s time for the New Year and the inevitable New Year’s Resolutions. But every year you make them and every year they’re forgotten by Valentine’s Day. How come we can’t make those good intentions stick?
Professor Peter M. Vishton of William and Mary College proposes it’s because we often work against ourselves. We adopt methods to achieve our goals that run counter to the ways our brains work, increasing the likelihood that we’ll simply give up in frustration. In his lecture series “Outsmart Yourself: Brain Based Strategies for a Better You” Vishton makes some practical suggestions for how to use your brain’s tenancies to help you achieve those goals.
Don’t announce your goals.
While you think you’re more likely to stick to your plan by telling it to others, sharing your goals actually reduces the likelihood of achieving them. When you get positive reinforcement from your friends and family, your brain gets a neurotransmitter reward as if you had already achieved part of the goal, lessening your desire to complete the task. If the feedback is negative, you question your goal which also reduces your desire to achieve it. Either way, sharing hurts your chances of getting it done. It’s better to tell friends and family after you’ve already done it.
Get rid of a bad habit by logging it in a notebook.
While most often used for trying to build good habits, logging is more useful for defeating bad ones. Write it down in a notebook every time you indulge in the undesired behavior – just the date, time and/or a short note. First, logging makes you aware of how much you’re actually doing that thing you don’t want to do. Second, logging builds self-discipline by making you take action every time you do it, even though that action is just writing it down. Most people notice they reduce the frequency of their bad habit without taking any further actions. Pair logging with even a minor lifestyle change and you improve your chances of kicking that habit all together.
Encourage a good habit by associating it with something positive.
Our unconscious minds constantly make associations. The key to encouraging a good habit is to ensure those associations are positive. Pair a desired behavior with a pleasurable experience – exercise with a friend, eat your healthy snack listening to your favorite music, go to bed early with your favorite book. Before long you’ll want to indulge in your good habit, because your unconscious mind tells you it’s pleasurable. This pleasant association will also make your good habit harder to break and easier to restart if it’s disrupted.
Reduce procrastination by doing nothing.
If you’re feeling unmotivated, give yourself permission to sit quietly for 20 minutes before starting a task you’re dreading. It’s counter-intuitive, but a conscious delay for a short period of time makes it easier to get started. You’re also much more likely to work productively on that task after the break. Since you sat quietly instead of distracting yourself with busy work, you’ll resist the temptation to fill the rest of the day with those less important tasks and ignore the more important, but less enjoyable one you really needed to complete.