Above: Image © iStock, Thinglass

It is hard to keep New Years resolutions and many of us do not take them very seriously.

Did you know? The tradition of the New Year's resolution goes all the way back to 153 B.C. where Janus - a mythical king - had two faces: one to see into the past and one to see into the future.

An understanding of the human brain and how it forms memories and habits can help in the battle of failed resolutions. Here are the key reasons that most people fail at keeping their resolutions:

Too vague . . .

A New Year’s resolution to become healthier leaves much to the imagination. Are you planning to be more social? Improve your diet? Be more active? Your resolution needs to be specific. An efficient goal tells you what steps to take and in what order to take them.

Instead of resolving to be healthier, decide that you are going to make healthier diet choices. If you already have good eating habits, try to get your heart pumping at least four days a week for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Too big . . .

Dreaming big is a great thing, but it is necessary to break down your goals into smaller tasks. Because most New Years resolutions involve a change in behavioural patterns, it is important to be clear on exactly what pattern you are trying to lose/form.

New brain imaging technologies in Psychology and Neuroscience (Pet scans, SPECT scans and MRI’s) allow scientists to visualize the brain and the formation of neural networks.

Did you know? MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. MRI is a technique used to get images of the inside of an object. Although it is sued mostly for medical purposes such as imaging the brain, it can also be used to measure permeability of rocks, etc.

In order to form new neural patterns (the building blocks for behaviour), there must be repetition. If you’ve ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit, you heard right. Research has shown that repeating a behaviour for 21 days forms strong neural patterns that become imbedded in the subconscious mind.

If your goal is to do better in school, break it down into a smaller goal (studying more) and then repeat! Eventually you will not have to tell yourself to study. In fact, research from the University of Toronto shows that the human brain can be overwhelmed by too much self control - yet another reason to keep your goals small and manageable.

Not taken seriously . . .

This is the most detrimental of all resolution spoilers. A thoughtful, planned out, repeated resolution stands a far greater chance at being successful than a lazy one. Plan your New Year’s resolution, even if this means you won’t start pursuing it until February. Write it down, including the steps that you will need to take, how you will keep track of your progress and how you will continue to improve.

Having your goals written down provides a constant visual reminder which has a similar function to the repetition of behaviour and habit forming. Write your goal down in the ‘notes’ section of your agenda book and read it EVERYDAY!

Did you know? The basal ganglia are structures in the brain involved in habit formation.

Scientists have shown that injuring the basal ganglia in a rat’s brain affects the rat’s ability to make and break habits and learn simple procedures like running a maze. Finally, scientists have found that the strength and number of neural connections associated with a thought or behaviour are increased when you’re in a highly emotional state. So grab a friend! Make your resolutions fun! And achieve your goals!

Learn More!

Mind Tools

Busy Women Fitness on Goal Setting

News @ the University of Toronto

New Years Resolution Week Fact

ScienCentral News: Dead Resolutions

Crystal Vincent

I am a PhD student at the University of Toronto. I am interested in insect parasites and have lived in the rainforests of Guatemala! I have pet walking sticks and I like food.

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