Making a New Year's resolution is the easy part. Keeping to it? Now that's harder, and if you're struggling, you're not alone.
Many of us ditch our resolution in the first month. And that's a shame because if you can stick it out longer than 31 days, your chances of success dramatically improve.
Why do we confidently make New Year’s resolutions, only to drop them within a month? Because making a resolution feels great! And our mind predicts that's how we'll feel about our resolution in the future. It's a phenomenon called affective forecasting.1
However, making a resolution and keeping it are two different things. It’s going to be at least a little tough at first. You probably won’t want to keep getting out of bed at 5.30am to go for a run, or turn your back on that tempting cake. At this point of emotional disconnect, our motivation wanes, and the wheels fall off our good intentions.
To give your motivation a tune-up, it helps to understand what is actually motivating us. And that’s a brain chemical, or “feel-good hormone” called dopamine. We tend to associate dopamine with rewards because it gives us a feeling of pleasure when we achieve something, but it’s also triggered by the anticipation of a reward.
Dopamine spikes when we anticipate something important is about to happen, and that motivates us to act2. Here are some great ways to create those dopamine spikes and help you with your resolution:
For a goal to be ‘important’ enough to turn on your dopamine, your brain needs to focus hard on it, almost get consumed by it. So, if you have multiple resolutions, get ruthless. Choose the most important one that will help with your wellbeing and focus on just that - at least for the first three months.
Break down your big goal into small goals and work towards them. This makes your resolution feel more achievable, which is motivating in itself.3 It also trains your brain to anticipate a reward for healthy behaviour because every time you achieve even a small goal, you get a dash of dopamine, encouraging you to take that action again.4
Another way to tell your brain that your goal is important is to track your progress. Write it down, keep it somewhere visible where you can see it every day, and track your actions towards achieving it. It keeps you focused and accountable, and as you make progress towards your goal, the dopamine gets triggered again. It also helps to tell someone about it, or connect with other people working on similar goals.
If you don’t have the right running shoes yet, then go for a walk in your jandles. Just take action. You’ll get your dopamine reward and feel excited about doing more. You’ll also feel better about not procrastinating.
By consistently creating a dopamine-friendly environment for your resolution, you’re doing something that has long-term consequences: you’re training a healthy habit.
We’re habitual creatures, about 40% of our daily activities are performed each day in almost the same situations.5 Habits have three essential parts, or what experts call a habit loop6 of Trigger, Routine, Reward. And you can change your habit by tinkering with these.
If you’re finding it hard to go to yoga class, try adding a reward like a coffee for immediately after. If you always go get a muffin at 10.30, set an alarm at 10.25 to go for a short walk in the other direction, then eat a banana on the way back.
Accept failure. You will slip up, and that's all part of setting a good challenge. Learning to be kind and forgive yourself is key to getting things back on track. One study found that 71% of successful resolvers said they came back stronger after their first slip up.7
1 Maldarelli, C. (2016, December 30). Why your brain makes New Year’s resolutions impossible to keep | Popular Science.
2 Lee, K. (2017, January 24). The Science of Motivation: Your Brain on Dopamine.
3 Comaford, C. (2015, November 22). Achieve Your Goals Faster: The Latest Neuroscience Of Goal Attainment.
4 Norcross, J. (2008, December 20). How To Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick : NPR.
5 (n.d.). How we form habits, change existing ones -- ScienceDaily.
6 (n.d.). How to Keep New Year’s Resolutions | Cool Material.
7 Norcross, J. (2008, December 20). How To Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick : NPR.