This post has been updated. It was originally published on December 30, 2020.
Breaking New Year’s resolutions is so time-honored a tradition that companies can actually stake their business model on it. Gyms like Planet Fitness depend on thousands joining up at the beginning of the year, only to fail on the follow-through. They sign up about 6,500 people per location despite the fact that each one can only accommodate about 300, relying on the low cost of membership to convince people that at $10 a month, you shouldn’t cancel—you’ll definitely start going next week.
Getting fit and losing weight are two of the most common New Year’s resolutions, and both depend on making daily changes to your life. That means interrupting your normal habits and exchanging them for new ones. Unfortunately, humans are terrible at doing both of those things.
Ironically, though, it’s hard to change habits precisely because our brains are so good at becoming habituated. We’re hardwired to automate processes. It’s how you can find yourself at work without having to think about getting there, or why you reach for the patch of wall where the light switch is in your own bathroom when you stumble into a hotel’s commode. It’s also why most new diets and exercise plans fail. Once a habit is automatic, it’s extraordinarily difficult to change it.
But you can harness that propensity to form habits and use it to stick to the plan when it comes to New Year’s goal setting. Let’s take a popular resolution—wanting to get in shape—and walk through how to accomplish that by applying what we know about the brain.
How to keep your New Year’s resolutions part 1: Break them down
What to do
Step one is to revise our goal from “get in shape” to something concrete that can break down into smaller, more achievable bits. Pick one identifiable thing that you want to be able to do by the end of December. Run five miles. Do ten pull-ups. Squat your bodyweight. It should be lofty, yes, but realistic. Then break it down.
Take squatting as an example. Assuming that you already know how to do a weighted back squat (if not, you can head to YouTube for a quick education), you’ll need to hit the gym—or invest in some home equipment—three to four times per week to get up to your bodyweight. You’ll also need to take in enough protein to fuel the requisite muscle growth, which should be about one gram per pound of body weight. We can shorthand the protein requirement by drinking a protein shake. Daily habits will become ingrained the fastest, so let’s say on top of the shake you’ll either go to the gym or take a long walk every weekday.
Why you should do it
Abstract goals make the worst resolutions. Your brain may excel at coming up with them, but it’s bad at accomplishing them. It’s easy to keep mindlessly moving through your daily grind, so you’ll likely keep forgetting to “learn something new” or “eat healthier.”
Even if you manage to follow those directives, it’s hard to feel like you really accomplished something when a goal is so abstract. And without that sense of accomplishment, you won’t be motivated to continue repeating the action.
The way to get that motivation is to involve your brain’s reward circuits. Positive feedback is like a drug to your neurons. In fact, positive feedback is kind of how you get addicted to anything—your brain craves whatever makes you feel good and will compel you to seek out that source again. There’s no singular part of the brain that performs the function of “reward,” because brains defy such simplification, but suffice it to say that a single reward can trigger multiple areas to release neurotransmitters that positively impact your brain.
To get that reward from a healthy goal, you have to make sure you get regular positive feedback. You need to regularly feel the little thrill you get when you do something you’re proud of, something that feels like an accomplishment. The best way to do that is to take your goal and break it down into smaller parts. The more frequently the parts recur, the better, because every time you link the action to the reward, the connection gets stronger. Constant reinforcement will force you to automate faster.
How to keep your New Year’s resolutions part 2: Build a bridge
What to do
You have two new daily actions that you want to ingrain (the shake and the exercise), and to do that you have to make space for them in your routine. Pick cues that you know will happen every day so that you’ll be prompted at the same time and place. That could mean making your protein shake when you go to rinse out your morning coffee cup, or doing it as your eggs are cooking. Perhaps the most convenient option: drink it as soon as you’re done working out.
For the exercise portion, decide whether you’re a morning or evening workout person (some trial and error may be required) and find a cue that works for your body’s timing. Maybe it’s when you get out of bed, or after you drop the kids off at school, or when you get home from work. Start getting ready to work out as soon as possible after this cue happens. Don’t sit around reading the news or tell yourself you’ll just watch one more episode of a new show. Start now.
Why you should do it
You already have ingrained daily habits that your brain is intent on keeping, and it has no interest in changing them. It loves routine. It’s made up of many millions of neurons that get you through your day, firing one after the other, propelling you through your daily grind.
[Related: How (and when) to use a memory palace]
This is a simplification, but your brain connects sets of neurons when you perform two actions one right after the other. If set A fires to brush your teeth, then set B fires to get you in the shower, A and B start to form a physical connection. The more you brush your teeth, then get in the shower, the more tied the A neurons become to the B neurons. If you do it enough, you’ll have to consciously prevent the B neurons from firing after the A ones. That’s automaticity—doing a thing so often that it becomes an automatic process for your brain.
Your goal should be to make your new habits automatic, and you do that by pairing them with something else that already happens every day. Having the same cue repeatedly will help you create a new connection quickly. At first it will feel like a slog to get your butt to the gym the second you get home, but eventually you’ll just find yourself changing into workout clothes without thinking about it.
How to keep your New Year’s resolutions part 3: Reward yourself
What to do
When you get home from the gym, regardless of how well you think you did or how awkward you felt, find some small mental reward for yourself. It will feel silly to consciously tell yourself that you’re proud of what you did, but it will work. As you shower off, take a few minutes and actually think about how good it feels to have accomplished this daily goal. Project forward and think how great it will be to keep accomplishing it. Relish this feeling and you’ll come to crave it, and that will motivate you to continue accomplishing these little intermediate goals.
Why you should do it
The more ingrained the link between the action (going to the gym, be it home or at a COVID-safe location), and the reward (a sense of pride) the easier it will be to motivate yourself to perform the action in the first place. Like Pavlov’s dog, your brain quickly comes to anticipate a reward that always comes after a certain trigger. The dog salivated when the doorbell rang, and you’ll start to get a release of positive neurotransmitters as soon as you start working out. Eventually, the exercise itself is enough to get the reward, and you won’t even have to remind yourself to give the praise explicitly.
How to keep your New Year’s resolutions part 4: Keep at it
What to do
Don’t expect the first couple of months to be easy. Assume you won’t want to go to the gym or make yourself a protein shake, but tell yourself that you’ll push through that feeling. If you have to, tell yourself you can quit if you still hate exercising in two months. Just stay in the habit until then, and odds are you’ll be enjoying the new routine by the time that deadline arrives.
Why you should do it
On average, it takes about 66 days for people to form a new health habit, though it varies from as little as 18 to more than 120 days. This is about how long it takes your brain to form a strong enough connection that an action becomes automatic. Again, you’re not hard-wired to change quickly. You’re designed to keep up the same actions that have kept you alive until now. To consciously change requires a long-term commitment to physically rewiring your own brain. You may be a person who only needs a few weeks to ingrain a habit, or you may need several months—rest assured, you will get there. Again: brains love automating. Your brain is no exception.
It feels daunting now, but in the grand scheme of your life two months is almost nothing. And once you change your habits it will be just as hard to break the new ones as it was to form them in the first place.