Make Your New Year Resolutions Stick

by Margaret Forde  registered psychologist Take the Steps” Mindfulness and Positivity Courses.

The many thousands of column centimetres that are written on the subject of resolutions every new year are a tribute to the fact that human beings are hope-making biological entities.

To help you on your way, I have compiled the Take the Steps research-based guide to help make your new year resolutions stick way beyond January.

1. Stick to what?
Our unconscious mind of course. Undoubtedly, it has the most influence on what actually happens in our lives. This of course was what Freud meant when he compared our mind to an iceberg,  but the latest research in neuropsychology points in that direction too. Daniel Kahneman’s  bestseller, “Thinking Fast and Slow “ summarizes the evidence to show why our unconscious deserves to be called our “System 1”.

Another metaphor that psychologists use to describe the influence of our unconscious on our behaviour is that of “the rider on the elephant”. Although the rider – our conscious mind, what Kahneman calls our System 2 to signify its subsidary role, – likes to think its in charge, it is no match for the strength and pulling power of the elephant. Everything can be great as long as the elephant is happy going along with the rider, but in many situations, the elephant has a mind of its own and other goals. So to achieve any goal, change any behaviour, we definitely need to get the elephant on board with the programme and not just depend on the exertion of system 2’s generally wimpy willpower!

2. Get the elephant on board with the program
This is the key to success. The elephant operates on imagination, often the wilder the better. Create a composite mental picture or colorful movie of your desired outcome. Make your movie exciting, because this will make the elephant take notice.  Spend some time daily running your mental movie in a relaxed state, when your system 1 is more to the surface, to program it deeply into the elephant. Re-run the movie in your mind when required!  The critical factors  here are to be able to relax to a deep enough level and to make your goal exciting enough so the more creative side of your mind is activated.

3. What is it you really, really, want?
Look at some of the resolutions you are contemplating and ask yourself are they exciting ? Are they aligned with your deeper values? What is it you truly want? If you think you might like to get fitter and in better shape, for instance, is it so that you can run up and down stairs without getting breathless? Is it so that you can walk into any store and find whole rails of clothes that fit you and look great? Is it to perform better in your sport, hobby or career? Is it to have a clearer mind and to be more resilient? Is it to be among the 20% of over 60s who are in rude good health? Is it to have a knockout effect on potential partners? Incorporate this “end result” picture into your mental movie.

4. Make resolutions that are fun, that have in-built rewards.
Our elephant is basically a reward-seeking missile, responding best to whatever gives us pleasure, whatever releases dopamine in the brain. What about making some resolutions like taking more holidays, spending more time with family and friends, spending more time in “flow” activities, or doing things that play to your greatest strengths?
Basically, if its fun for you, you will do it!

5. What if its not intrinsically rewarding?
You just build in rewards, as you go along, rewarding milestones along the way. Keep the gap between the milestones short at the start, and pick things that you really like as rewards, as long as they are not running counter to your goal. Even playing a “mental victory dance” ( wow, I did it , I did it ) when you complete a particular step or resist a specific temptation has been shown to release dopamine in the brain and keep us motivated.

6. Translate your goal into behavioural units.
A behavioural unit is something you actually do. A behavioural unit that you repeatedly do becomes a habit. A small step you habitually do is more effective than grandiose plans. This is what makes the “three good things” exercise performed daily more effective in lifting mood than either Prozac or counselling.

So, don’t just say to yourself “I’m going to meditate” or “practise the oboe more”, but identify the slots in your day or week when you are going to insert this new behaviour e.g ten minutes before lunchtime, when I drop the kids to school, when I come home from work, set the alarm earlier etc.
Remember, habits of mind are simply mental behaviours that you have constantly practiced. You can choose to practise other mental behavioural units!

7. Identify and turn around your triggers.
Our current habits are often activated by triggers e.g. the smoker who reaches for the packet when he or she relaxes with a coffee or tempting smells and sights to the person who has resolved to keep to a better diet. So really what we are talking about here is an outright battle between the reward seeking behaviour of system 1, the elephant, and the attempts of system 2, the rider to bear in mind the long term reward.
This of course was the subject matter of the “marshmallow man”, Walter Mischel. His initial research studied the characteristics of children who resisted eating marshmallows when they were left alone in a room with them. He then went on to study strategies for delaying gratification with both adults and children.

He recommended a two step plan which he found to be surprisingly effective :
– identify the triggers you are likely to encounter.
– develope a substitute if … then response “ if  I see X on the menu , then I will immediately order Y which I know to be better. “ This will become your new habit.
This strategy also works well with mental habits e.g “ If I  start worrying about something, then I will immediately replace it by imagining what I want to happen”.
I also recommend getting the elephant on board by using step 7, and by rewarding yourself with a mental victory dance or whatever you think is appropriate when you effectively turn around the trigger.

For more information and training in using your mind more productively, see  the “Take the Steps” program.