New Year’s Resolutions and Your Brain

For the past six years I have written entries on why New Year’s resolutions fail and how to get better results. I highly suggest that you take a look at all of them before reading this article (or after if that is more practical for you). They can be found here,  here,  here,  here,  here and here. All of these articles have suggestions and helpful strategies you can use for achieving any type of behavioral change goal you may have.

All of the previous blogs I have written on this subject cover many fairly straight-forward actionable suggestions. This year I thought I would go into some of the technical aspects of the brain’s inner-workings, and then share a new piece of actionable advice aimed at defeating its default patterns.

The brain has separate systems to evaluate immediate and delayed rewards. As you might imagine these systems are often at odds with each other. Our impulsively desired rewards, like dessert or mating urges, are driven by the ancient limbic structures and the nucleus accumbens, where our dopamine reward pathways reside. To use a car analogy, think of this part of your brain as the gas pedal.

Our longer-term more responsible goals, like staying fit and being faithful, are driven by the ventrolateral and dorsal regions of the prefrontal cortex. Continuing with my car analogy, these would be the brakes.Unfortunately, through evolution we have become wired in a way so that our short-term interests and desires will win out over more responsible choices, barring conscious effort to put more beneficial mechanisms (habits) in place.

So how can we begin to create habits that defeat the evolutionary wiring in our brains and thus make better long-term choices? The first step is to make rules for yourself to live by. What this does is enlist your prefrontal cortex as an ally against your more reflexive part of your brain before it has the chance to overwhelm you with temptation (dopamine).

For example, if you make the rule “I don’t eat dessert” it becomes a substitute for willpower. It enables you to sidestep the painful emotional distress of your internal conflict between your desire to eat dessert and your determination to resist. It also changes your self-image over time to you being someone who does not eat dessert. This may seem trivial but your self-image is determinative. Perhaps that will be the subject of next year’s New Year’s blog?

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” – George Eliot

Make it a great New Year!


You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc


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