Beyond the New Year's Resolution

brain change-agility goals learning neuroscience resolutions Jan 17, 2024
Colorful sticky notes with goals written on them

How to Develop New Habits (and Stick to Them)

If you're like most people, you may have already abandoned your New Year's resolution (or are in danger of doing so). According to a Forbes Health/One Poll survey, only 6% of people are able to maintain their resolution beyond the first 12 months. That doesn't mean that resolutions aren't worthwhile, it's just that most people are doing it wrong. 

With a little more understanding of the neuroscience behind developing new habits, you'll be more effective at sticking to your resolution (or giving it a second chance).

What are habits?

Habits are activities that we do repeatedly, almost automatically, without having to give them a lot of thought. Habits can be beneficial (like brushing your teeth or exercising every day) or detrimental (like compulsive gambling or stress eating).

In the beginning, every habit (whether positive or negative) starts with a conscious decision that activates the brain's pre-frontal cortex. While you're engaging in the new activity, your neural networks are already busy forming the pathways and circuits needed to repeat it. 

If you are rewarded, your brain releases dopamine (a feel good hormone) the next time you engage in the activity—and that motivates you to continue. Thereafter, every time you repeat the activity, your neural networks grow stronger and more efficient (in a process called neuroplasticity). 

Eventually, the neural networks are so strong and efficient that you're able to perform the activity on auto-pilot, without the need to involve your pre-frontal cortex. At this point, the basal ganglia—situated at the base of the forebrain—take over, and the activity has become a habit. Once the habit is formed, you will tend to continue it even if there is no longer a reward.

Why are bad habits so hard to break?

A lot of New Year's resolutions involve breaking bad habits (drinking, smoking, overeating, overspending, etc). But once a habit has become ingrained in the neural pathways, it can be difficult to shake. That's because your brain has learned to crave the anticipated dopamine surge, and you tend to engage in it on autopilot. So unless you make a repeated conscious effort, the bad habit will continue to resurface.

The conscious effort required to break a bad habit often takes more than just willpower alone. We've all experienced the momentary lapses that can occur when faced with a tantalizing and more immediate reward (for example, the short-term enjoyment that comes from eating dessert often wins out over the longer-term reward of dropping a pant size). 

In order to avoid the bad habit, you have to interrupt the dopamine cycle. You can do that through the power of negative association, referred to as "extinction" by psychologists. For example, when faced with a tempting dessert, you can interrupt the anticipation of a reward by thinking about negative associations instead. So instead of thinking about how yummy a piece of cake might be, you can imagine the toll that sugar cane plantations take on the environment, the cruelty involved in commercial dairy and egg production, and the health risks and wrinkles that are associated with sugar consumption. 

The stronger your negative associations and the earlier you are able to trigger them, the less likely you are to engage in your bad habit again. But just as the habit was formed over multiple occurrences, this extinction process will need to be consciously performed multiple times (the new "avoidance" neural pathways need to reinforced over time before they become your new normal).

Another way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a new, healthier one. For many people, it can be easier and more motivating to think about the positive rewards of doing something new, rather than thinking about the negative consequences of doing something that already has a dopamine cycle associated with it.

The 5 tricks you can use to create a new habit

Now that you know how habits are formed, you can give your New Year's resolution a boost by tricking your brain into turning your goals into actual habits. 

The good news is that you're already on the right track. Having a resolution or formal proclamation of your desire to change makes you 10 times more likely to actually do so, compared with people who don’t make any resolutions at all, according to John C. Norcross, Ph.D. The not-so-good news is that breaking old habits and forming new ones is going to take more than willpower alone. Here are five tricks you can use in your plan to create a new habit.

1. Recognize your triggers.

For some people, bad habits are preceded/triggered by a specific event. For example, feeling overworked and burned out may trigger someone to "reward" themselves with a night of drinking or other bad habits. Learn to recognize the triggers that precede your bad habits, and eliminate those triggers if possible. If you can't eliminate the triggers, then be ready to cut off the bad habit before it takes hold.

On the flip side, we can use triggers to help us solidify a good habit. For example, you could use your afternoon break to implement a regular walking time. By pairing your new exercise routine with a regular event, you will create a natural trigger for your new habit.

Another way to think about triggers is to ask yourself, "What could get in the way of my goal to engage in new habits?" Life happens. Some days the perfect storm of interruptions could throw your best laid plans into chaos. But if you prepare for challenges, you can thwart their power.

Best-selling author James Clear recommends using an "If-Then Technique" to overcome the potential for failure. Here's how it works: in thinking about your goal, complete this phrase: “If [something unexpected happens], then I will do [X].” For example, your If-Then statement might look like one of these:

"If it rains in the morning, then I will run on the treadmill instead." 

"If I find myself craving cigarettes, then I will practice deep breathing instead."

"If I eat too much at lunch, then I will have a salad for dinner."

This technique gets you to consider and solve potential problems before they arise, taking the extra load off of your brain when it's time to engage in the new habit.

2. Reduce friction.

Starting a new habit requires a conscious effort. Your brain has to work hard to remember the new steps and overcome any bad habits that you are replacing with the new one. You can make it easier on your brain by reducing friction, or taking some steps in advance to eliminate barriers. For example, you could put out your running shoes the night before so that when you wake up, there's one less thing to do before your new morning run. If your goal is healthier eating or eliminating alcohol, reducing friction might involve purchasing a few specialty grocery items or non-alcoholic drinks to make the transition smoother.

3. Start small (or break bigger goals into smaller steps).

Big goals can be overwhelming, leading us to abandon them before they are achieved. Instead, start with smaller, more attainable goals, or break your big goals into smaller steps. For example, "I want to lose 20 pounds" might be broken down into, "I want to lose 1 pound per week," and "I will drink water instead of sugary drinks and exercise for 30 minutes per day."

4. Reward yourself.

Rewarding yourself for engaging in your desired activity is a necessary part of turning it into a habit. The reward doesn't have to be big, but it does need to be meaningful to you, and it needs to be consistent (at least in the beginning). For example, if your goal is to work out more regularly, reward yourself each time you work out with 30 minutes of extra "me time." Or give yourself a "workout bank" where you pay yourself $5 each time you work out, so that eventually you can buy something fun with your workout savings. Get creative and have fun with your reward system.

5. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

The key to developing a new healthy habit is to be consistent: repeat the activity and reward process until it becomes automatic. The amount of time this takes will vary, so just stick with it and keep going through these steps until you no longer have to consciously try to engage in the desired activity.

A few words about self-compassion

Setbacks are a natural part of the learning process, especially in the beginning. It takes a larger amount of energy for your prefrontal cortex to engage in forming a new habit. Outside factors like distractions, stress, a lack of sleep, dehydration, or malnutrition can compromise your brain's ability to focus properly on engaging in your new behaviour. When this happens, it's easy to slip into old habits.

If you experience a setback in forming new habits, practice self-compassion. Examine the factors that led to the lapse, and make a note of how you can avoid them in the future (in some cases, you may wish to seek professional help in navigating this step). Recommit to your goal, believe in yourself, and carry on. You deserve it.


About the Author

Sandra McDowell, MA, PCC, CPHR

As the founder and voice behind eLeadership Academy™, Sandra McDowell helps leaders and organizations increase performance and well-being by leveraging neuroscience insights to harness the untapped power of the brain.

About eLeadership Academy™

Exclusive to credit unions, eLeadership Academy™ is the only online training solution that provides accessible, actionable training to develop high-performance CU leaders. We are on a mission to help build leadership and coaching bench strength within the system because we know credit unions are a force for good, and their leaders are the catalyst for member and employee experience. For more information, visit or contact [email protected]