Let’s be honest for a second: New Year’s resolutions are hard. Come January 2, even the most driven goal-setters start to give in to temptation, whether it’s indulging in that last slice of apple pie or hitting the snooze button instead of hitting the gym. But it’s not entirely our fault.
According to Dr. Joseph Shrand, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, pleasure resides in the back of our brains and is part of our survival instinct. This small area of the mind releases a stream of dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel good, every time we indulge in our desires. That’s why you may feel a pleasant rush every time you bite into a chocolate bar or snuggle deep under the covers instead of getting out of bed. On the other hand, self-control resides in the front part of our brains, meaning it isn’t necessary for survival. So, when we’re faced with the choice between sleeping in or getting on the treadmill, our survival instinct usually wins out, and we opt for more zzzs.
But we can beat it. Now that we understand how the brain works, here are four science-backed ways you can outsmart your temptations and accomplish your goals for the New Year.
- Break it up – “Lose 10 pounds by March” is an attainable and specific goal, but to some, it may seem daunting. Instead of setting one big goal, break it up into smaller changes you can make every day, like using the bathroom on a different floor, replacing potato chips with a piece of fruit, and going to bed 15 minutes earlier. You’re more likely to stick with a goal when you can make small, actionable changes throughout your day.
- Make yourself proud – All it takes is one little slip-up to get caught in an icky cycle of self-doubt. Instead giving up on your goal after making a mistake, write a list of all things you’ve done last year that make you proud. Maybe you got a new job, made a new friend, or learned how to cook a new vegetable. Seeing how much willpower you actually have can give you the mood boost needed to get back on track.
- Share your success – Your loved ones want you to succeed, so why not enlist them as cheerleaders on your journey? By sharing your goals with others, you’re not only arming yourself with a crew of accountability partners but you’re also surrounding yourself with a support team who will share in your triumphs. Texting, emailing, or calling a loved one after you’ve made progress toward your goal releases oxytocin, another feel-good chemical in the brain that’ll motivate you to keep going.
- Believe in yourself – Self-fulfilling prophecies are real: If don’t believe you can achieve your goal, chances are good that you won’t. Here are a few tricks for turning an “I Can’t” into an “I Can”.
- Focus on the big picture by identifying why you set your goal in the first place. If you want to lose weight in the New Year, think about the reason behind it. Maybe you’re trying to stop taking your diabetes medications, or you want to be able to keep up with your children. Thinking of your big-picture reason will help you during times of temptation.
- It’s good to hold yourself accountable, but don’t try to achieve perfection. Know that nobody is perfect and that slip-ups happen to the best of us. When you make a mistake–and you will–shake it off, give yourself a pat on the back, and keep moving forward.
- Replace unhappy thoughts with positive ones. If you catch yourself brooding, “This is too hard,” or “I want to give up,” try changing the tone of your thoughts. Instead, try thinking, “This is hard, but I can do it,” or “I’ve already made so much progress, giving up now would be silly.”