The resolution-setting season is upon us, and goals of losing weight, getting fit or eating healthy loom large. But, by February, many of those goals will have gotten lost in the rush of work, family, friends, and everyday life.
Some doctors say there is a reason New Year’s resolutions are so difficult to keep, and it has to do with the way your brain works. So, here are some tips to overcome those challenges and set resolutions that will last after winter ends.
It’s all in your brain
The first step to creating an achievable New Year’s resolution is to make sure it is realistic and specific. Instead of resolving to lose 15 pounds, try deciding to exercise three (or two) times each week. Find a friend or family member to exercise with you, who will encourage you to hit the gym and hold you accountable if you skip a workout.
But sometimes, these simple tips aren’t enough. Joseph Shrand, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told WebMD that it might have to do with the way your brain is designed.
Self-restraint – the kind needed to stick to a resolution – lives in the front of your brain, which is the most recently evolved part, he said. Pleasure – the kind you get from indulging in chocolate – lives in the brain’s most primitive area, which overrides the newer parts, he said.
So, how can you overcome your brain’s primitive instincts and stick to a New Year’s resolution?
Boost your willpower
It turns out willpower is like a muscle. Marvin D. Seppala, chief medical officer at Hazelden addiction treatment center, told WebMD that the part of your brain that controls willpower gets stronger the more you exercise it. To build willpower, try squeezing a rubber ball until the activity becomes uncomfortable twice each day. Or, try as hard as you can not to tear up during a sad movie, WebMD recommends.
When your willpower starts running low, do something that puts you in a good mood. Researchers once asked a group of students to use up some of their willpower by snacking on healthy food instead of cookies. They then showed some of those students a funny movie, and found the ones who had seen the funny movie were able to complete a willpower-intensive task for longer than the students who hadn’t seen the movie, according to WebMD.
All of this willpower practice can be tiring. Researchers at the University of Florida found that you use up glucose while exerting self-control, which happens when you are working to meet a goal. You can replenish that glucose to keep up your willpower by eating foods such as fruits and starchy vegetables. WebMD recommends a glass of fruit juice with no artificial sweeteners added.
Set the right goals
Willpower won’t get you very far without goals that are achievable. Resolutions to lose a certain amount of weight or to get healthy can be harder to keep than goals centered around smaller changes.
It might seem like broader health goals require huge, overwhelming changes to your lifestyle. But, it can be less daunting to try changing one thing at a time, according to the American Psychological Association. Try deciding to take the stairs at work every day, or to incorporate low-fat cheese or milk into your diet instead of the full-fat products. This will keep your goal manageable, and it will help you keep track of whether you are actually meeting your goal.
If you meet your goal quickly, you can always add another. You can even resolve at the beginning of the year to set a small, specific health goal every month or quarterly, until you meet a broader goal to lose weight or get healthy.
Whatever goals you set, make sure they are easily measured, the American Council on Exercise recommends. It is hard to tell when you have met a goal to get healthy. It is easier to track whether you have met a goal to sign up for an exercise class or to go to the gym twice each week.
Finally, don’t forget to give yourself a deadline to achieve your goal, ACE recommends. That will give you an incentive to get started.