Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Always Fail

KUT’s “Two Guys on Your Head” co-host and UT professorArt Markman on why your New Year’s resolutions always fail.

By the time you read this, your New Year’s resolutions have probably failed already. The most popular resolutions are things like losing weight, getting in shape, and quitting smoking. If you are one of the many people who have given up on your resolutions, you don’t need to wait until late next December before you try again.

Changing behavior is hard, because your existing habits are memories that relate the situations you encounter with the actions you are supposed to perform in those situations. These habits involve brain circuits that run through the basal ganglia—brain structures that lots of other animals like rats, mice, and deer also have. The circuits engage your goals and orient you toward information that will help you to achieve those goals. For ease of discussion, I call this “the Go System.”

Memories of all kinds (habits included) pop out automatically when there is a cue in the environment that triggers them. Stand in your kitchen, and habits related to eating are engaged. For smokers, particular friends, drinks, or locations may bring out the goal to smoke. Memories are retrieved without having to think about it. So, your brain is constantly looking for memories of what to do, and engaging the Go System to lead you to perform those actions.

Once your Go System engages a goal to do an action, it is remarkably good at focusing you on objects and plans that will help you achieve that goal. Things related to achieving the goal (like food or cigarettes) become more desirable. Things unrelated to achieving the goal become less desirable.

If you are trying to refrain from these types of behaviors, then you have to make use of a set of brain mechanisms that run through the frontal lobes of your brain that I call “the Stop System.” This system tries to fight off or inhibit goals that you have engaged. Unfortunately, the Stop System is weaker than the Go System. It can be impaired by stress, drugs and alcohol, and even overuse. So, if you constantly rely on the Stop System to make your New Year’s resolutions come true, you are likely to fail.

Instead of relying on the weaker Stop System to change your behavior, your goal is to reprogram your Go System so that you are focused on habits that lead to the long-term outcomes you desire.

First, you have to get to know your existing habits. Your habits allow you to act without thinking, so you are likely to be unaware of when and where you are doing something that gets in the way of succeeding with your resolutions. Before changing your behavior, take two weeks to catalog your existing behaviors.

Then, make sure that you focus your resolution on new actions you can perform that will lead to success. If you focus on what you are not going to do, you put all of the pressure on your Stop System rather than thinking about the actions that your Go System can engage.

Next, you want to focus on the specific actions you will take to reach your goal. Make sure you create a plan that puts those actions on your calendar. You need to get that specific, because until you try to schedule the actions, you won’t be aware of all of the conflicts that will keep you from achieving your goal.

Finally, don’t be afraid to enlist the help of other people. You are more likely to stick with your plan when there are other people holding you accountable. In addition, you should find other people who have succeeded at doing what you hope to accomplish and learn strategies from them.

If you focus yourself on reprogramming your Go System, you might just get your money’s worth from your gym membership this year.

Illustration by Drue Wagner


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