It is the time of year when we start hearing, “There goes my New Year’s Resolution!” Only a few weeks into the new year and we’ve already slipped up on our resolutions to lose weight, stop smoking or exercise 3 days a week. Even the people who’ve resolved not to make a resolution are beginning to wonder if they can keep that resolution. Thinking about resolutions from a brain perspective points out why resolutions are so hard to keep.
The biggest reason resolutions are so difficult is that we have forgotten the wisdom of Dr. Seuss. In the Seuss classic Horton Hears a Who, Horton the elephant resolves to save Whoville, the village living on a dust speck. “I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they,” he resolves. Horton’s resolution, in contrast to many New Year’s resolutions, is about helping others. If he didn’t keep his resolution, others would be harmed and so he went to great lengths to keep his promise and protect the Whos.
Finding a motivation that extends beyond oneself is one key to resolution keeping. The other is remembering the value of trial and error in learning. A resolution to change is about learning a new pattern of behavior. Learning involves trial and error. Inevitably, there will be a time when our desire to exercise three days a week, for example, and the immediate needs of family will conflict, or where the urge to smoke after a meal can’t be resisted. If we consider the “slip-up” as just that, and as an opportunity to learn and get better at our desired behavior, then we don’t have to give up on the resolution just because we didn’t follow it one time. After all, Horton didn’t give up when the flower with the dust spec was hidden from him. He knew he had to find the Whos.
Lofty, all-or-nothing plans are not very brain friendly. Giant changes in what we do rarely succeed without practice. Better to make the resolutions but also give ourselves steps to accomplish along the way. Celebrate the steps whether you succeed the first time you try them or the tenth. Celebrate what you can learn from the times you don’t quite meet your own expectations. Figure out why you failed, adjust, and plan to work up to the goal by the end of the year!
Our brains like routine and habits, and they also seek novelty and success. So, remember … Just because you didn’t make it past the second week of trying to exercise three times a week doesn’t mean you can’t get there in 2012. Remember Horton.
I think I hear a speck of dust talking to me … time to get on my treadmill!