It is that time of the year again. People make new year resolutions. Many of us can use one or the other kind of resolution in our lives. But what really is a resolution?
What is a Resolution?
‘Resolution’ is derived from the Latin root ‘solvere’, which means ‘to loosen’ or ‘to release’ or ‘to solve’. There is a sense of solution that is implied in ‘resolution’.
With resolution, a decision is to be made to address a problem, usually, a hardy one. We feel the need to address a problem at hand, e.g. lose some weight or quit smoking. And we like to express the intention to achieve the goal of losing some weight or quitting that bad habit. Resolution is a formalization of that intent to achieve the goal.
The resolutions usually, comes into play only when we are dealing with issues that are hard to get traction on. These are not your easy problems. In that sense resolutions are almost reflective of our grappling with those difficult issues.
What is the Best Time to Make Resolutions?
In theory a resolution can be made as soon as a need is felt, and many people do just that. One doesn’t have to wait for a public calendar event like a new year or something else to make a resolution.
But in our mind, we like to choose a clean slate and a fresh start to take on something that is formidable but not necessarily super urgent.
Do resolutions really work?
Have you ever ended up making the same resolution more than once? People end up making the same resolution over a few times. While this may not be true for all of us, this phenomena is very wide spread.
Why is that? Is it that for some of us a specific goal like weight loss is unachievable? Are some of us just chasing the mirage?
Not really. Of course we know that certain categories of goals are harder to achieve than others. But they are not impossible.
Why We Can’t Stick to Our Resolutions?
The biggest reason we fail to stick with our resolution is that the part of our brain that comes up with and makes resolution is not really in charge. The part of our brain that makes resolutions is only good at making them.
The success of a resolution depends upon its enforcement in our daily lives. And when it comes to the enforcement the part of our brain that made the resolution is pretty much helpless. And we end up failing at holding on to our resolution.
So what do we do? First, we need to understand a bit of psychology, like we just did. We need to understand a bit more about how our brain works especially when it comes to controlling our behavior.
Not Just an Abstract Goal, but a Set of Behavior Changes
Most of the time when we resolve to do something what we are really after is a behavior change. Take the example of weight loss. When you want to lose weight, what you are really after is making changes in your food choices or being more disciplined about exercise or both. You are looking for a behavior that consistently makes correct food choices or where you are disciplined about the regular workout.
In terms of making a resolution you have to drop abstract goals and translate the abstract goals into simple behavior changes. And then work on one simple behavior at a time. Going back to the weight loss example, some possible simple behavior changes are.
- Replace a high calorie afternoon snack with a fruit.
- Start jogging for 5 minutes per day.
- Every morning do 5 pushups.
Immediately your mind will object that how can such simple behavior changes help achieve original objective of losing weight? You know that doing 5 pushups everyday morning is not going to help you lose weight and you are absolutely correct.
Behavior Change through Formation of Small Habits
Here is the deal. Your abstract resolution of weight loss actually needs several simple behaviors. These simple behaviors need to be progressively expanded. You start with 5 minute jogging and gradually you take it up to 30 minutes.
And when we talk about behavior change we are really talking about the new habit formation. The behavior change mainly works by forming habits. It is just extremely difficult to change behavior consistently in a controlled manner. You cannot keep trying to do something different consciously.
And that is exactly is the reason why we fail at achieving our big goals. Because we don’t necessarily think of them as habit formations. And even when you approach the problems with a habit formation view, here is what you need to remember. It is extremely difficult for us to form complex habits.
For example, if you have not been running and decide to run for 30 minutes every day morning, it’s going to be extremely difficult for you to pull that off. But if you decide to run 5 minutes or even just 2 minutes every day, it’s going to be much easier. And the habit is more likely to stick.
That’s why you want to start with the simplest habits. If you are interested in finding more about this, you can look up the work of Stanford scientist B. J. Fogg.
The Anatomy of a Habit Loop
Habit formation is a systematic process. We will look at a simple habit model. Habit in general has 3 components, in the chronological order.
- The cue or the trigger.
- The actual behavior.
- The reward.
For any habit to work all three components have to be present. You have to set up a cue or a trigger. You can designate any event that is already taking place with the desired frequency to be the cue. If you want to form a daily habit, the trigger has to be a daily event that takes place at the desired time.
If you want to go jogging daily in the morning, the cue can be brushing your teeth, or the sight of jogging outfit visibly lying on the table or the couch (someone will have to set the outfit out every day!!)
If you want to form a non-daily habit, don’t set a daily cue. Because trigger will always set off the desired behavior. This can get a bit tricky, but you just have to be a bit careful about selecting the triggers.
Then comes the reward. The reward is very crucial for the habit formation. Wrong selection of reward can defeat the purpose of forming the habit in the first place. So what can be the reward? In general anything that we humans desire is a reward.
- A desired material object, like shoes, shirt or a piece of jewelry.
- A small piece of high calorie treat.
- Affection from a loved one.
As you can see we will have to be careful with reward selection. It wouldn’t make sense to buy material objects as a reward given that we are going to have to reward us on a regular basis. Also you can imagine the small piece of high calorie treat is not going to be a very good option either. Imaging you trying to replace afternoon cookie with a fruit and having to use a piece of candy to reward yourself.
Paying to Attention to the Self!!
To put in a simple terms, when we get a reward a brain chemical called dopamine is released and we need enough amount released for the reward mechanism to work. B J Fogg and other scientist found through their experiments that we can cheat a bit here.
When you pay attention to yourself, it works equally well as a reward! When you pump your fist and say to yourself “I did it!”, or “I am cool!” or “Yay me!” enough dopamine is released for it to work as an effective reward! For small habits, it can be a very effective reward to have this little victory dance.
So you use this little attention reward and you start with 2 minutes of jogging every day. You can gradually stretch it out to as long as you want just by using the same habit loop of cue, activity and reward. Always choose a tiny incremental change in behavior.
Now sometimes it may not be possible to implement this progressive behavior change. Nicotine addiction is an example, where gradual behavior change is usually extremely difficult. But majority of behavior can be changed using this method.
Behavior Change by Offloading Control to Social Brain
There is one more possible way of changing behavior. It involves using your social brain. For example, you want to take up a new activity like running or swimming. It is very difficult for you to consistently drag yourself to do this.
But it is far easier to set a date with someone you know, a friend or a family member. And then you offload the control to the social brain. And when someone else is expecting you to join in an activity, it’s much more like for you to take action.
When you want to form a habit of picking up a new activity this can be a very effective method. One variation is to publish your goal to your friends or social circle and let them hold you accountable for making progress towards your goals.
Behavior Change by Cultivating Mindfulness
The last method that we will discuss for maximizing the probability of your sticking to the resolution is becoming more mindful.
When you become more mindful, you are present more of the time. And you are on auto-pilot less of the time. This means we can exert more self control and are more likely to follow up on our resolutions and implement them.
Earlier we talked about leveraging habit formation. Because if we don’t cultivate mindfulness, we are mostly checked out and on auto-pilot. The conscious brain is not active, but primitive parts of the brain which are involved in habit loop are more active. This is why we have to use habit formation to impart the desired behavior change.
In some ways, we have to find out how we behave when we are on auto-pilot and leverage that, because after all we are mostly on auto-pilot.
When you are more mindful you take the correct course of action as you are not checked out. You exert self control. You enter the cafeteria with an intention to order a salad. And as you peruse through the menu and notice hamburger, your primitive brain perks up! If you are not mindful, the subconscious urge, excited by the primitive brain will sneak in and take over. Before you know, you will have finished the hamburger.
But if you are mindful, the subconscious urge will no more be subconscious. Your mindfulness will expose it in the broad daylight and you will be able to see it clearly. Once you notice the urge clearly, the original intention will kick in and you will be saved.
How can one become more mindful? One has to use mediation to cultivate mindfulness.
A very successful behavior change involves a combination of leveraging small habit formation and becoming more mindful.
Change abstract goals into required behavior change. Break up the large behavior change into small steps. Work on forming small habits and work on them one at a time. Don’t start with a 30 minute routine. Start with a 2 minute routine and gradually keep adding more minutes. Carefully pick the cues and rewards.
See if you can offload control to the social brain when it comes to picking up new activities.
Cultivate mindfulness. This will help prevent sneaky subconscious urges from spoiling the intention for a behavior change.