What did you promise yourself last year for New Year’s Eve? It’s the perfect time to turn a new page: live a better, healthier, more successful life. So how come the overwhelming majority have such trouble sticking to their goals?
Researchers have looked at the success of people’s resolutions: for the first two weeks everything goes perfectly, but by February, self-control starts to dwindle. What did you promise last year?
To exercise more, eat right, drink less, quit cigarettes, read more, spend less money and generally be a better you. Will you be successful? Most people will not. In fact, an underwhelming 8% manage to achieve their goals. Is this because people are lazy or weak willed?
No – not quite. A study by Stanford University shows that our prefrontal cortex, right at the front of our brains above our eyes, is responsible for providing self-control over urges we’re confronted with . This part of our brains, however, is also responsible for handling short-term memory and abstract reasoning simultaneously. That’s why you had to have that second piece of Christmas cake while worrying how you were going to afford the family ski vacation and presents for great aunts and uncles!
In essence, when we’re challenged by multi-tasking and multiple stimuli, with the stresses of everyday life, we are most likely to set aside self-control. We go back to our strongest urges and existing patterns, and abandon our decision to resist what we want but shouldn’t do.
Here we have ten tips for setting realistic goals, which hopefully will help you get where you need to go.
Set specific, realistic goals. Losing weight isn’t specific or realistic, but losing 2kg a month is.
Take small steps. Most people attempt to make giant leaps, but then quit when they aren’t instantly successful. Be patients and you’ll gain.
Celebrate your successes between the milestones. Went to the gym three times this week? Great! Treat yourself to a day away in the countryside or a fun dinner with close friends.
Don’t wait until New Year’s eve to make resolutions, instead think about next year’s aims all through the year. They’ll be much harder to quit then resolutions made on a whim for the 31st.
Focus on one resolution, rather than several. Studies show that we have limited self-control, and if we focus on too many things at once which require intense concentration and strength, it will be much harder to achieve our goals.
Focus on thinking new behaviors and thought patterns.
Have a buddy who monitors your progress closely, who rewards you with your achievements and tells you to get in line when you haven’t achieved your goals.
Focus on now: what’s the one thing you can do right now, to help you achieve your goals? Most of us think we’ll get to achieving our goals tomorrow, and do something wrong today. Just one more piece of chocolate, then I’ll make the gym tomorrow for an extra half hour. One last cigarette with my glass of wine, then from tomorrow I won’t smoke another ever again. Procrastination only makes you feel more guilty and disappointed. Try acting today.
Be mindful. Becoming emotionally, physically and mentally aware of how you’re feeling when everything happens, moment by moment, rather than in retrospect, helps us to act now and not later.
Be flexible. We’re not robots – when you sprain an ankle or have the flu you can’t visit the gym or do your usual routine. Be strict with yourself but don’t be unreasonable – sometimes something can’t be done, but other days or other ways we can keep working to achieve our goals.
Take control this year and set realistic, time bound and flexible goals that you can achieve. We believe in you – you’ll make it, if you’ve got strategy and train yourself to exert more self-control.
To improve your willpower, NeuroNation offers exercises that can help you improve your ability to resist temptation. An excellent exercise for this is Color Confusion, where your natural impulse to read a word instead of naming a color has to be suppressed. Give it a go today, and follow our ten tips, to see if you have more success this year than last!
1: Krishnamurthy P & Prokopec S (2010) Resisting that triple-chocolate cake: mental budgets and self-control. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(1): 68-79.