Did you make a New Year's resolution this year? If so, you're among the millions of folks who set goals for a better "you." You're also among the millions of folks who will fail miserably.
Anyone who has ever set a New Year's resolution knows how hard it is to stay the course. Whether your goal is to lose weight, pay off debt, or get organized, what starts out as enthusiastic motivation quickly dissolves into apathy within a few weeks.
Keeping a New Year's resolution is a common challenge. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Scranton found that 23% of people quit their resolution after just one week. And less than 20% of people actually stick to their goals long term (two years, in the case of the study).
One of the most common reasons people are unable to reach their goals is because they aren’t thinking small enough. It’s true. If you really want to reach a goal, think small… smaller goals lead to greater success.
Instead of setting life-changing goals for the year, think smaller - like Monday aspirations. Research shows that people view Monday as a fresh start, and as the day they are more likely to start healthy activities like diets, exercise, and stress management practices. The key is to set a goal every Monday and check your progress at the end of the week. In this way, you can create 52 opportunities to win with smaller regular goals rather than an "all or nothing" approach that is unlikely to be sustainable.
Present Bias and Instant Gratification
Long-term goals are harder for us to stay focused on because humans are wired to seek out instant gratification. The instant-gratification seeker is responsible for what psychologists call present bias or the urgency effect. Being instantly gratified merely means that we tend to value immediate rewards or payoffs that are closer to the present time than those further in the future. The further into the future the reward lies, the less value we put on it, even when the value is the same or greater.
You can trick the brain by breaking those long-term goals down into smaller goals and get a reward from each small win. You’ll get a little boost of dopamine each time you can say, “I reached my goal today!” For example, imagine your goal is to write a book and you think it will take you a year to finish. Set a small goal each week that gets you a little closer to the finish line.
“I’m going to finish the outline by next week.”
“I’m going to write at least one paragraph every day.”
“I’m going to interview two people who can give me direction.”
What About Willpower?
Having strong willpower is not something we’re born with. But it is a muscle that we can train and develop in such a way that brings us long-lasting effects. We’ve been studying willpower for a long time. In a well-known 1960s psychology experiment called the “marshmallow experiment,” Stanford professor Walter Mischel offered four-year-olds the choice between one marshmallow or two — they could receive one instantly, or two if they agreed to wait 15 minutes. In over 600 children who took part in the experiment, a minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, only one third waited long enough to get the second marshmallow
Mischel and fellow researchers then tracked the performance of these children into adulthood, finding that the kids who had the willpower to resist the instant gratification in general were happier, had better health, achieved greater academic successes, and lower rates of divorce. Amazingly, the differences in their levels of willpower stuck with them for over 40 years.
Since Mischel’s landmark study, scientists have continued to explore the brain activity of willpower and their findings are fascinating. Willpower lives in the prefrontal cortex – remember this is the region right behind the forehead that handles all the higher order thinking processes such as planning, making choices, and solving problems. In recent studies, MRIs show that when people are presented with tempting stimuli, those with higher self-control have greater activity in the prefrontal cortex, and when the prefrontal cortex is engaged, you’re doing your best thinking.
Here is another interesting finding: willpower is a depletable resource. We tend to have more of it in the morning when we’re well-rested and the brain is fueled with glucose. As the day wears on and glucose levels decrease, so does our willpower. Consciously identifying your goals in the morning and doing one thing that puts you a step closer to meeting them is one simple strategy to help you achieve greater success.
Just like your muscles have to be trained in order to grow stronger, so does your willpower. Each day is a new opportunity to strengthen your brain. This year, think of each day as a blank page in a 365 page book.
Write well, edit often.
Did you know...
The tradition of setting a New Year's resolution has a pretty interesting history dating back 153 B.C. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus for whom the month of January is named. Janus is always depicted with two faces, one on the front of his head and one on the back, so that he could reflect back on the past and look forward to the future at the same time.
Want to learn more about how the brain works and how you can make it work better for you? Check out my new book, Happier Hour with Einstein and the full-color companion Gratitude Journal. And remember, life is better when you share the good stuff.