Each time the calendar says January 1, we gather up our best intentions in order to make a list of resolutions. More than half of the population made resolutions in 2015, according to a survey. Losing weight, stopping smoking, eating healthy or doing more exercise still top the list, together with the goals of saving money, learning a new language, or calling old friends more often. But how many of these plans actually come to fruition? The truth is far fewer of them than we would like.
According to a 2007 study by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, out of a sample of 3,000 individuals, 88% failed to meet their New Year’s resolutions. Data from the latest survey are also pessimistic – one in three people admit that they abandon their goals in January, and only 10% say they always keep their resolutions. Science is beginning to clarify the reasons for this lack of success. Recent research on willpower and the acquisition of habits is helping us to understand what determines whether or not we reach the goals we set for ourselves at the beginning of the year.
Neuroscience has identified that our willpower resides in the neurons of the prefrontal cortex. The problem is that this area of the brain has many other tasks to keep it busy. Among the other things it manages are short-term memory, planning the day’s tasks, making an average of five decisions per day, maintaining concentration and attention, managing social relationships and even solving abstract problems. “If the frontal cortex is too busy, the will weakens,” says Baba Shiv, a researcher at Stanford University (USA). In a curious experiment, the researcher showed that if a person with a healthy diet is asked to remember a seven digit number and is then given a choice between eating either chocolate cake or a piece of fruit, in most cases the person succumbs to temptation and chooses the cake. However, if that same person only has to memorize two figures, they usually opt for the fruit. Therefore, good advice for persevering in our goals is not to exhaust the resources of the prefrontal cortex.
The science of self-control
Avoiding rush-hour traffic or the hustle and bustle of city life may also help us to persevere, because, according to research, the many stimuli that reach our brain while taking a simple walk or drive around a crowded city reduce our self-control. Moreover, to keep willpower strong it is essential to sleep well. It is easy to fall into impulsive behavior if we lack sleep since, among other things, when we sleep there is little activity in the prefrontal cortex, the headquarters of self-control. In fact, while we are trying to achieve a goal, what could help us to persevere is taking an afternoon nap for 60 minutes, a habit that scientists from the University of Michigan (USA) have demonstrated contributes to maintaining self-control.
Nor should one forget that stress is a serious enemy when we are trying to change our ways. Using neuroimaging techniques, Lars Schwabe of the Ruhr University of Bochum (Germany), has concluded that hydrocortisone and norepinephrine, two hormones that are secreted under stress, reduce activity in the prefrontal and orbitrofrontal cortex, areas that should be fully operational when we are trying to achieve a goal.
Avoiding stress is not the only trick we have to strengthen our willpower. Science has identified other curious strategies to help us transform our good intentions into action. One interesting finding is that the unit of measurement of time matters. People find it much easier to reach a goal if they plan to achieve it in 365 days rather than in 12 months or one year, as demonstrated recently by Dapha Oyserman of the University of Southern California. On the other hand, Kurt Gray of Harvard University recommends doing a good deed, such as donating money, as his research has shown that this type of activity increases both willpower and physical endurance. And from the University of Singapore, Iris W. Hung has discovered that when a piece of cake is making our mouth water, if we tense the biceps or squeeze the muscles of the hand for a minute, we find it easier to avoid temptation.
And what happens when our intention is to acquire a new habit or get rid of an old one that is doing us harm? Unfortunately, it’s not easy. Our brains find it more convenient to run the routines they already know as they require little energy and are automated. “Forty percent of the time we do things without thinking. Having habits allows us to focus attention on other things,” says Wendy Wood, a researcher at the University of Southern California (USA) and an expert on the subject. On the contrary, changing habits requires constant attention and repeated effort for an average of 66 days, as calculated by Philippa Lally of University College London (UK) in a study published in European Journal of Social Psychology. And, as we have explained, if our frontal cortex is overloaded with work, something that often seems inevitable in our busy modern lives, good intentions are not enough.
Creating habits occurs in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is stimulated by repetitive learning and contributes to the acquisition of both routines and addictions. More than a decade ago, Ann Graybiel and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered that neurons in this region are like magnets for dopamine, the pleasure hormone, and therefore “they respond better to rewards (positive) than to negative motivation,” explained the researcher. In other words, when trying to acquire a habit, it works better if we reward ourselves, rather than punish ourselves.