One week down in the New Year. How’s that resolution going? How are you hoping to improve yourself this year? Eat healthier? Exercise more? Express more gratitude? Aww, that’s soooo cute … but you’re probably going to fail, if you haven’t already.
“But this year is different!”
Why? Why is this year different? You’ve been carrying around 20 extra pounds for 5 years, but suddenly this year is different? You’ve been a miserable grouch your whole life, but suddenly this year is different? Research shows that by the time Valentine’s Day rolls around half of you will be back to your old ways (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1989). In fact, while we’re only one week in, the same study estimates that a quarter of you have already given up.
You’re going to fail at your New Years Resolution because your brain is designed for you to fail. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. Yes, you’re going to fail, but keep trying anyway. That is the only way to succeed.
To explain further, your brain is organized for either goal-directed actions or habitual actions (aka habits). Goal-directed actions, as the name suggests, aim to complete a task or achieve a goal, while habitual behaviors are just things you do because you’ve done them a bunch of times already. Goal-directed actions are mostly controlled by the prefrontal cortex, while habits reside in a deep reptilian structure known as the basal ganglia. Thus the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for creating new behaviors and the basal ganglia is the part of the brain responsible for executing old behaviors. In short, the prefrontal cortex is where resolutions are made, and the basal ganglia is where they go to die.
So while your prefrontal cortex may decide to give up eating dessert, the basal ganglia doesn’t really care what the prefrontal cortex decided. The basal ganglia is not even really conscious. It just keeps doing what it’s always been doing, and you go along for the ride. In fact, the functioning of the basal ganglia also explains why addictions to alcohol, gambling, cigarettes, drugs etc are so hard to kick (but substance abuse opens a whole other can of worms). The basal ganglia just keeps your habits going even though your prefrontal cortex has to face the consequences.
The reason that you can start a life change in the first place is that the prefrontal cortex can override the basal ganglia. The problem with keeping resolutions comes from the fact that the prefrontal cortex can only override the basal ganglia insofar as its paying attention. And it’s impossible to be eternally vigilant and pay attention to your resolution all the time. Your brain has only so many resources for paying attention. You will stop paying attention at some point either because of distraction or stress (stress is really the big one). As soon as you stop paying attention, the basal ganglia takes over, and you don’t realize it until you’re halfway through that pint of Cherry Garcia.
Think of your basal ganglia as a dog. Like a dog it needs to be trained. If you leave a plate of cookies sitting out on the coffee table and the dog eats them, you can’t really get mad at the dog. That’s what dogs do. What did you expect? Sure, if you were standing there staring at your dog the whole time then maybe the cookies would be safe, but then your phone rings, or you have to go to work. If you haven’t trained your basal ganglia to stop eating cookies, then what exactly are you expecting will happen when your prefrontal cortex is not watching over it?
So what have you been training your basal ganglia your whole life? Well every evening when you get home from work you’ve trained your basal ganglia to sit on the couch and watch TV, instead of going to the gym. Every time you drive past a Krispy Kreme you’ve trained your basal ganglia to park and buy a dozen. Every time you sit down to your computer you’ve trained your basal ganglia to go to iwastesomuchtime.com instead of writing (oh wait, that’s me). With a lifetime of terrible habits, don’t be surprised that retraining your basal ganglia may take some time.
So how do you retrain your basal ganglia if it doesn’t care what you want? You need to understand that it only cares about rewards and repetition. I will restate that because it’s important: your basal ganglia responds to rewards and repetition. Rewards and repetition. (For even more help with this check out Charles Duhig’s The Power of Habit at charlesduhigg.com).
Often we describe the slips in ours resolutions as failures of willpower. But blaming willpower doesn’t get at the truth and only succeeds in making you frustrated and upset with yourself. Sticking to a resolution is not simply a matter of willpower, because you can only have willpower insofar as your prefrontal cortex is paying attention. Most failures in resolutions come from the fact that your prefrontal cortex cannot be eternally vigilant. It’s you talking on your phone while the dog is staring at the plate of cookies. You can’t get too upset with yourself for having limited attentional resources. That’s just how your brain is designed (although you could chill out a bit and free up some additional brain power). And you can’t get mad at a dog for being a dog. When the prefrontal cortex is distracted or stressed out, the basal ganglia takes over.
In fact, getting upset with yourself does not really help the retraining process. It may even hinder it. Too much frustration or self-directed anger or self judgment is a source of stress. And stress makes it more likely you’ll keep doing your old habits.
The moment you notice that you failed to keep your resolution is a special moment. That is the opportunity for the prefrontal cortex to reassert itself. That is the moment for you to remind yourself of your resolution and try again. Yes, you will probably fail in your resolution, but if you give up at that point, then you’ve only trained your basal ganglia to give up.
Be as patient and kind with yourself as you would be with a cute little puppy dog that you’re trying to house train. Stressing out the puppy will only make it pee on the floor. When you fail in your resolution, just go for it again. And again.… and again, and eventually it’ll start to stick.
If you liked this article then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time