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Science Helps Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Science Helps Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Turning New Year’s resolutions into habits.

Science Helps Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Saturday, December 31, 2016 - 08:45

Alistair Jennings, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- This video is for anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution --and broken it.
We always want to keep our resolutions -- and it feels like the more motivated we are to keep it, the more successful we’ll be -- but that’s not true.
The science says that the resolutions that actually work are those that are easily turned into habits.
I’ve never been able to keep a resolution longer than a week. So I tested this idea by trying to keep a resolution for a month, just using habit.
Now, I hate getting up in the morning -- so I tried getting up early and meditating for 5 minutes every morning before I started my day. 
To understand why this method works, we have to understand habits. So what really are they? They’re actions that are automatically triggered by a certain context. Like, getting up in the morning triggers getting a shower.
If we repeat the same simple action in the same environment, we can train ourselves into habits.
And the thing about habits is -- they persist even after our initial motivation dissolves.
Forming habits is about mentally programming sequences of actions into your brain. That happens in a region hidden under the folds of the cerebral cortex -- in a subcortical region called the basal ganglia.
When we first perform an action, many basal ganglia neurons fire during the complex parts of the movement.
But as the habit forms, activity decreases during the complex sections -- as our neurons become more efficient at coding for the behavior.
As this happens, more neurons start firing at the very beginning and very end of the action sequence. 
So once our new habit is formed, the basal ganglia stops sequencing the action and acts instead like a trigger -- setting off a habit when we enter a certain context. This is automatic -- we no longer need motivation.
By the end of the month, I was up early to meditate without even thinking about it – and that’s exactly the point -- the action became automatic, a habit!
Early on, motivation will help the formation of habits -- so give yourself some rewards at the start. They could be personal, social or edible. The brain’s reward signal is dopamine -- and decreasing dopamine makes making habits harder -- so don’t make life tougher than it needs to be!
And don’t forget -- missing a day doesn’t significantly stall habit formation... but the more complicated the habit, the longer it takes to form -- so go easy on yourself.

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Alistair Jennings headshot, lab.

Ali Jennings has his PhD in neuroscience from University College London.