Your Brain on Resolutions

Some information in this blog is from “Blame it on the Brain,” by Jonah Lehrer, The Wall Street Journal.

Human routines are stubborn to change. Habits are hard to break. They are especially hard to break if we try to change more than one bad habit at the same time. We often do this by making multiple  New Year’s Resolutions-quit smoking, exercise more, lose 20 lbs, and spend more time with my kids.  Some scientists say you can blame your brain for failing, or more specifically, you should blame your prefrontal cortex. 

That’s the part of our brain responsible for keeping us focused, for handling short-term memory, and solving abstract problems. It’s also the part of the brain that is sensitive to mental overload. In other words, when we are bombarded with daily messages or tasks, our focus and problem solving abilities suffer.

If our lives are already full with tasks to complete, decisions to make, and busy days to navigate, asking our bodies to make significant changes might send our brains into frontal cortex overload. As a result, those “Resolutions” are the first things to go. 

But is dropping our New Year’s Resolutions really our brain’s fault? 

An experiment was done at Stanford University with several undergraduates divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of cake or a bowl or fruit salad.

Those students with the seven-digit number were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as the students given two digits. The reason, according to Professor Baba Shiv at Stanford, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load” on the prefrontal cortex—making it much harder to resist the dessert. 

Other studies show that something as simple as walking into a crowded room is enough to reduce some part of self-control, due to the stress and anxiety it can cause. Have you ever been at a crowded party and turned to food or drink to help calm you?

Unfortunately, this theory says that our level of commitment to change or whether or not we succeed at changing bad habits is largely due to our brain, and not so much our conscious efforts. If we really believed that was true, how would this impact how we set our goals? It’s not very motivating to set a goal and then just hope your brain lets it happen. 

I think it’s a combination of both. We need to make realistic goals and set ourselves up for success by trying to predict how other life issues could pop-up and sabotage our plan. 

Try to troubleshoot for your goal: 

1. What is your usual stress  level? When challenges come your way, how can you set yourself up to deal with them more productively?

2. Do you have basic coverage for “just in case” incidents? Back-up childcare? A reliable automobile? Some money set aside to put toward your goal if necessary? The appropriate amount of time set aside for this goal?

3. Try to foresee anything else that might stand in your way.

At Exertec, we realize life happens, but your success is our business. Now more than ever, we’re focused on the many aspects of our lives which make up our total picture of health.  If you want to learn more about ways to increase your success, ask in Member Services about our “Solutions Series” workshops. Best of luck to you and your brain in the New Year!