Getting Back on Track: The Science of New Year Resolutions

Monday Dec 29 | BY |
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On Christmas Eve, I had a busy day. I committed to two consecutive dinners: one with my family and one at a friend’s place. Because many of my cousins have young children, Christmas Eve dinners tend to end early these days. So initially, when I accepted the invitation to the second dinner at my friend’s place (“I’ll stop by and say hello”), it sounded like a great idea.

Family dinner was over by 10:30 p.m. and I knocked on the door for my second dinner at roughly 11 p.m. Obviously, my idea of stopping by “just to say hello” extended to dessert, midnight celebrations, and leaving at roughly 2 a.m.

Maybe it’s because I lack practice in partying, but I can’t seem to be able to stay up very late. I was super tired by the time I got back home, and the next day, slept in and only left the house to take a short walk.

On Christmas Day, I saw a guy in his running gear out for what looked a serious workout, in freezing weather (I live in Montreal, Canada). Part of me thought “Wow, that’s commitment,” and “I wish I were that guy.”

Getting Back on Track After the Holidays

Invariably, and in spite of my best intentions, year after year, my healthy lifestyle falls apart between November and the end of the year. It starts when the days are shorter and colder. It starts with my skipping a few workouts, and suddenly, it’s December 29th and I think to myself “I gotta get back on track!”

I’m not the only one, and far from the worst example. For many people, Holiday parties bring on overeating and fat gain. We’re encouraged by everyone around us to “relax a little bit” and “enjoy yourself… it’s the Holidays!” This period of “enjoyment” generally means evening after evening of too much food, too much alcohol, and little to no exercise during the day.

This generally leads us to set some kind of New Year resolution, or many. Roughly 40-50% of Americans set themselves one or more resolution, but fewer than 10% are kept.

This high rate of failure made me think… is there a scientific way to set a New Year resolution that will stick, and actually succeed?

Why We Fail at Sticking With New Year Resolution

The reason why most people invariably fail at sticking with New Year’s resolutions has to do with willpower.

The area right behind your forehead holds the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for short-term memory, solving abstract tasks, and staying focused. It also handles what we consider willpower.

We can’t stick to New Year’s resolutions because that part of the brain can’t handle the level of willpower we ask of it. The science is very clear about this:

1) Willpower is limited

Research shows that we should think of willpower like any other muscle in our body. If we exercise it too much, it will get tired. Our prefrontal cortex can only handle so much willpower, and needs to be strengthen with practice and exercise.

2) Willpower takes real energy

Willpower takes energy. From an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal:

In a 2007 experiment, Prof. Baumeister and his colleagues found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exert self-control. Willpower, in other words, requires real energy.

3) Willpower is limited

One way to look at it is thinking of willpower as a limited resource. Although it’s not completely accurate, in practical terms, it makes a lot of sense — the more we use our “willpower reserves,” the more we deplete them.

That’s why many fitness trainers recommend exercising first thing in the morning. It’s not because it’s necessarily more beneficial to exercise in the morning, versus other times during the day, but because you’re more likely to follow through if that’s the first thing you have to do in the day, versus trying to persuade yourself to exercise after a long day of work, when you’re exhausted and want a break.

My 50 Goals System

Every year, roughly around this time, I used to set about 50 goals for the year. I learned this technique years ago from David Wolfe, who told me he was setting 100 goals every year and reviewing them on a regular basis. I could never come up with more than 50 goals, so I stuck with that.

Every year, I completely about half of those goals. What happens with the rest?

– Some of them were unrealistically high
– Some of them no longer become relevant as the year progresses and priorities change
– Some of them took more time than expected to complete
– Some of the goals took more of my time and energy, at the expense of others.

I still think it makes sense to set goals on paper every year, but I realize that 50 is too much. Although I will keep track of long-term goals, this year, I plan on reducing my goals or resolutions to a minimum.

How to Set New Year Resolutions

According to science, this is how you should set New Year Resolutions.

1) Don’t Pick Too Many Resolutions

In one study conducted at Stanford, two groups of students were given numbers to memorize. One group had to memorize a two digit number, while the other had to memorize a seven digit number. The two groups were asked to take a walk while remembering that number. After that, they were presented with a fruit salad or a slice of cake to eat.

Here’s the interesting conclusion: The seven digit memorizers were twice as likely to pick the cake over the fruit salad. It seems like the energy required to hold the number exhausted their “good decision making” space in their prefrontal cortex!

Cognitive overload will ensue if you try to keep more than one or two resolutions in your brain at once. So only pick 1-2 resolutions. Start with your biggest goal! If you achieve it earlier, then you can focus on another one.

2) Make it Very Specific

Studies have proved that setting specific goals leads to better results than setting vague goals. “Get in shape,” or “eat healthier” should be replaced with more specific resolutions such as:

  • Lose 10 pounds or achieve a specific percentage of BF
  • Practice intermittent fasting once a week for two months in a row
  • Go two months without alcohol
  • Complete a 5K race

3) Set a Realistic Goal

I believe that the best goal is a little challenging, compared to where you are now, but completely realistic. If you’ve never been able to stick with a regular workout routine, is it realistic to pretend that you’re going to exercise every single day? It would be best to go for a more achievable, one-time goal such as completing a 5 or 10K running race.

Try to set goals that will set you up for success and not possible failure. Exercising 3 times a week for 60 minutes at the gym may be unrealistic, but walking an average of 10,000 steps a day is more achievable. The “average” step count makes sure that if you miss one day, you can make up for it the next day.

4) Write it Down

I believe that something magical happens when we write down a goal. It’s one of the few non-rational beliefs I hold! My experience has proven that something shifts in our consciousness when we write down a goal (especially on paper). Sometimes you don’t have to do anything else… and things seem to fall into place!

5) Create a reward system, and get someone involved

Research has shown that focusing on the carrot, not the stick, leads to better results when it comes to goal setting. Receiving positive feedback works better than creating a negative outcome in case the goal is not met (for example: I’ll give you $500 if I don’t stick to the goal).

If you know you can achieve your goal and it’s very specific, you could get someone involved in your plan. For example, that person could become your “success buddy” in your mutual endeavor: you will chat on a regular basis about your mutual goals and encourage each other.

One fun element of this system would be to add a reward when the goal is reached. For example, one person invites the other person for dinner at a great restaurant to celebrate, once the goal is met.

Question of the day: Do you plan on setting one or more New Year Resolution(s)?

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

5 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Larkspur says:

    My best NY resolution is resolving not to set one! That doesn’t mean I don’t have my sights on improving or maintaining fitness and health, but these are gradual and ongoing changes and therefore I am more able to be interested in continuing .

    To me, setting ‘goals’ is synonymous with a chore and I am more likely to one day feel I really can’t be bothered! and that then is the end of that!

    Having a goal seems like being ‘driven’ but improving a way of life feels like being drawn onwards and is not a fail or win, but an improvement.

    I think it is very important to listen to ourselves and our bodies and follow like the ebb and flow of he tide. Some days will appear more productive than others, but that’s OK. They are not ‘failure days’

    That’s my philosophy anyway. Fifteen years ago I couldn’t do one press up, now on a good day I can do 40, but its never been a goal.

  2. Susan says:

    I think it is best if your goal is something you want to do versus what you think you should do. Good article.

  3. Beth says:

    Ok. . . this is just “science” at it’s worst.
    To make these “scientific” claims is just well, a long shot.
    In truth, the reason that our will power is always in such a quandary, is because it is in the limbic part of the brain where we make our decisions. This is where we store our beliefs about everything that we think about and do. We make up our minds here with our emotions. Every decision we ultimately make is made out of a fight or flight response, based on our fears and beliefs about something or even ourselves. What we believe about exercise, (whether it helps us or not), believe about food, believe about health and well being, believe about sickness, believe about fun, and the holidays, is all made within the feeling part of our brain. And IT is always in conflict with the frontal cortex of our brain where reason and thinking are manufactured and supported by our beliefs. The brain is not a muscle, it is a mass of neurons that is as complex as the Universe and we have yet to even understand the smallest amount of this complex part of this amazing part of Creation. While setting goals is important and follow through more important still, until we change our beliefs about something, no amount of will power will succeed in our decision making. Beliefs are ingrained into WHO WE ARE and requires new revelation and new paradigms and of course the desire to incorporate them into our new selves. Our emotions drive us at all levels of understanding. So while we like to think of ourselves as logical “spock-like” beings, we are simply beings of emotional, illogical beliefs and no amount of “science” will change that, no matter how you spin it.

  4. Linda says:

    My goal is to keep doing want I am doing, my road to good health and better fitness.

  5. Satori says:

    Yes, I do! I’ll set them soon enough after all the New Year’s parties are over;-)

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