By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
It is that time of year again! The old year is ending and we have aspirations for the upcoming year. Many people decide to use this as a starting point to create change in their life. Even with good intentions, up to 90% of people of people who set New Year’s resolutions give up on them within the first 30 days of the new year (UAB Medicine, 2019). That is a depressing number, isn’t it? But does it stop us from at least setting an intention to create a change? No!
In this post we are going to talk all about why we set New Year’s Resolutions, what they do to our brain, and how we can make them actually stick. That’s right, I am going to help you set New Year’s Resolutions that will help you release dopamine, improve your levels of serotonin, and give the prefrontal cortex some facts to help shut that darn amygdala up!
First things first, what are resolutions? By definition, a resolution is “a firm decision to do, or not to do, something” (Merriam-Webster, 2011). Honestly, I think this definition is pretty clear cut. Making a resolution is our chance to stand up and clearly make a change for ourselves. This change can be good (for example, we can go with the most popular New Year’s Resolution “I will loose weight this year so I can run a 10K), or it could be bad (to quote my favorite movie of all time “I will never love again.” [Reiner, 1987]). The thing is, when we set the resolutions, we are often missing some crucial information to helps us stick to it:
- How we are going to accomplish this resolution
- What do we need to make the resolution happen
- How is this resolution realistic (yes, I’m calling us all out here)
- Not knowing when we have reached the resolution goal
- A clear plan to achieving the goal the resolution is getting us to
If your New year’s Resolution cannot answer the above information, then it may be doomed before you even start working to it.
If you recall from my post, Why your Brain Needs a Routine, we talked about why our brain LOVES routines. Now before you say “Carissa, what does that have to do with resolutions?”, hear me out.
Our brain enjoys routines. It allows our darn amygdala to know what is going on and our prefrontal cortex to collect information that supports us being in control versus feeling like we’re in danger. This keeps the rest of our body happy. When we choose to make a New year’s Resolution, we are throwing that routine off. When we throw the routine off, all sorts of things can happen: increased release in the stress hormone, cortisol, increased release of adrenaline (which creates the Triple F response), throwing off our sleep cycle, and just a general sense of worry (stupid amygdala). Even if we are trying to create a healthy change, it is still out of our body’s norm, so it is going to panic for a bit.
Once that darn amygdala stops stressing out and catastrophizing what you are doing, you can start getting on track with creating a change in that routine (you know, to get your resolution in there).
But there is a trick to creating a change and having it actually stick so you can reap the benefits.
The trick to creating change is to start with steps that are not only easy but small. When we first set a resolution, we are sometimes trying to create a big change quickly. Those lofty big changes create unrealistic expectations and when we don’t see the change immediately happen, we start down the road of negative self-talk and experience the feeling of failure.
By starting small, we are able to see progress immediately. This gets the dopamine flowing and helps the brain in a different way. This release of dopamine slows down the adrenal gland’s production of adrenaline.
Now, why is this important? I’m happy you asked! Do you ever get that weird feeling when you are starting something new? You know, butterflies in your stomach, a new excitement, maybe even some nervousness? That is because the stress neurotransmitter, adrenaline, is trickling in and is trying to help you be prepared for all the new information coming in from participating in this change.
Coping Skills Alert
I’ve talked many times about this skill, and I’m going to revisit it here again. Why? Well, first off, it is one of my favorite skills because it helps me tame my own anxiety and negative self-talk. Second, this skill helps you make your goals more accomplishable while allowing you to reward your brain with dopamine along the way. Let me reintroduce you to SMART goals!
This go-to coping skill is the most beautiful outline for New Year’s Resolutions for many reasons:
- Helps you create an official resolution to work towards
- Slowly introduces changes to your brain to help create a plan to conquer your new year resolution
- Breaks that resolution down into doable steps
- Allows you to track your progress to your resolution
- Gives you clear-cut information about when you do achieve your resolution
First, let’s review what the acornym, SMART, stands for:
S – Specific: make your new year resolution specific
M – Measurable: identify what steps you need to accomplish to achieve this resolution
A- Attainable: Make sure the new year resolution is actually possible
R- Realistic: creating a new year resolution that is something you have the ability to do
T – Trackable: track the progress to your new year resolution and celebrate that progress!
“Even though these are self-explanatory, it is important to remind ourselves if we don’t set specific and realistic New Year’s Resolutions, ones we can actually achieve, we are setting ourselves up for failure. That’s right, self-sabotaging comes in the form of unrealistic goals. “– Carissa Weber in Depression and All That Jazz
When it comes to creating SMART goals, it is best to grab some paper to help you out. First things first, you have to be able to identify:
- What resolution(s)/change(s) needs to be accomplished?
- Are there clear steps you can see to achieving that resolution/change?
- Is there anything, or anyone, you need to help you achieve the resolution? (hint, hint: accountability buddies work!)
- What are the barriers keeping you from creating the change you need?
- Is there a way to remove said barriers to help you achieve your resolution?
- How will this New Year Resolution change my life? Are there good and bad changes that come with this resolution?
Are you able to answer these questions? Then you have the building blocks of a SMART goal! Now, let’s break SMART goals down by going through a real-life example: by exploring an actual New Year’s Resolution.
As a mental health therapist, one New Year’s Resolution I hear all the time is “I want to improve my mental health.” Although I love this resolution, it is so vague and leaves really no direction as to what you need to do to improve said mental health. So, let’s make it into a resolution that is clear, offers direction, and clearly marks when we’ve made improvement.
First things first, we need to get specific. What about our mental health do we want to improve? Do you want to be able to go through a week without crying or overthinking? Do you want to have self-esteeem? Gain motivation to fight your depression? By labeling what we specifically want to accomplish, we shift our brains from thinking with our darn amygdala to our prefrontal cortex. Remember, our prefrontal cortex is where we problem-solve, check facts, and stay present with our present. For me, my specific goal for 2022 is to be able to say (and believe) realistic facts about myself. Note how this is pretty darn specific. It says what I want to do that will help improve my mental health.
Next, we got to make you New Year’s Resolution measurable. If we keep using our example resolution, to be able to say (and believe) realistic facts about ourselves, how do we make this measurable? This is an important step as it this step outlines the individual steps we will be able to check off once we accomplish it. Not only does this keep us thinking with our prefrontal cortex, this sets us up for releasing dopamine with each step we check off.
For this particular New year’s Resolution, we have to put some steps into place that are small, but meaningful. These steps could be along the lines of practicing realistic affirmations two or three times a day. It could also be writing down your gratitudes on a daily basis. Perhaps, it is practicing validating your own feelings and putting them in a journal three or four times a week.
This next step is hard, but important. We often forget to make our New Year’s Resolutions attainable. There is nothing worse than setting a goal knowing it is something we are not able to do. A great example of this is me setting a New Year’s Resolution that I will get myself ready to run a 10K next month. If I am a runner, sure, I could do that. But I am not a runner. I haven’t run in years. I have a bum hip, ankles that roll easily, and a case of asthma that makes it hard to walk in cold temperatures. A 10K aint happining. If I set a New year’s Resolution like this, it isn’t attainable for me. I’ve set myself up for failure.
When we look at our example New Year’s Resolution, there are things we can do to make this goal attainable. For example, I know that I am able to write things down. I know the power of realistic affirmations. The steps I have created are things that I know are in my ability to do.
This blends well into making New Year’s Resolutions realistic. Just like my example of running a 10K next month, that isn’ realistic for me. Maybe as an end goal and a few months of training, it could be. Now, this is a goal that isn’t revelant to me as I’m not interested in running a 10K. Believing I am a good person, on the other hand, is something that will impact my life, and the lives of the people closest to me. By making the steps of your New Year’s Resolution realistic, you are engaging the hypothalamus and hippocampus in drawing out memories of when you have accomplished things, which between you and me, is huge!!
Last but not least, you need to make sure your New Year’s Resolution has a timeframe. Kind of like what we did when we created the measurable steps, we need to know when we will reach our New Year’s Resolution’s goal. In the case of believing realistic facts about ourselves, we know that saying we are going to accomplish that next week is a tad unrealistic. Remember, it takes about 66 days for your brain to form a new habit. Making goals along that 66 day mark increases your chances of the resolution of turning into an automatic habit.
There is a lot involved in making a change that turns into a habit. But if you are able to take the time to create small changes that reward your brain (and plug them into your routine), there is a higher chance your New Year’s Resolution will turn into the habit you want it to be.
I want to thank you for taking time to learn more about how you can use the science of your brain to make your New Year’s Resolution become the change you want it to be. Change is always hard to do, but it is something that helps you build confidence in yourself each day.
Handouts are created to help you remember the facts of each post and help you implement the coping skill into your life. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) go over setting up your New Year’s Resolution(s) as SMART goals. Enjoy!
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- Arlinghaus, K. R., & Johnston, C. A. (2018). The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 13(2), 142–144. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827618818044. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6378489/
- Boogaard, Kat (2021). How to write SMART goals. Retrieved from How to write SMART goals (atlassian.com)
- Reiner, R. (1987). The Princess Bride. Twentieth Century Fox. Retrieved December 10, 2021
- Resolution. 2011. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resolution
- UAB Medical Marketing (2019). 10 Secrets of People Who Keep Their New Year’s Resolutions. Retrieved from https://www.uabmedicine.org/-/10-secrets-of-people-who-keep-their-new-year-s-resolutions
- Weber, Carissa (2021). Why your Brain needs a Routine. Retrieved from https://thatdarnamygdala.com/2021/05/01/why-your-brain-needs-a-routine/
- Weber, Carissa (2021). Depression and All That Jazz. Retrieved from https://thatdarnamygdala.com/2021/05/12/depression-and-all-that-jazz/
- Samstokes80 at https://princessbride.fandom.com/wiki/User:Samstokes80
- Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com