New Year Resolutions

The first page of three leading dailies in Mumbai (Hindustan Times, Times of India and DNA) on 31st December and 1st January carried an advertisement by Nicorette- a gum which helps quit smoking. Its no rocket science why Nicorette would spend so much money on prime advertising property.

This is the time of the year when everyone is keeping resolutions. And we can safely assume being fit, quit smoking, spend more time with family, get organised, quit drinking and weight reduction must be the top few resolutions we all make. Equally predictable is the fact that only 30 % of the people are able to sustain their resolutions for a period of more than two weeks. We have too much faith in our willpower and assume that when faced with the situation when we have to take a few tough decisions, our willpower will see us through.  We fail to realise that our decision making process while we are making the resolution is very different from when we are tempted to break it. We all give in to instant gratification and perhaps as Oscar Wilde observed – The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.

So we are not the only ones who have lost a couple of thousand bucks on the gym fees which we never attended or got back to our drinking/ smoking habits in moments of stress. And while there are tips available on how to keep your resolution like setting specific incremental goals, starting with smalls goals, sharing your resolutions, writing your resolutions down in an expensive diary ( yes, apparently expensive is important ) we do end up goofing up.

Recent study by psychologist on why we are not able to manage resolutions so well has a different take. And things which we take for granted including our everyday stress, fatigue and our desire to manage everyday life events like job, friends, family  has an important role to play in how we make decisions ,whether we succumb to gratification or not and hence manage to keep those resolutions.

In one of the experiments participants were asked to memorise a seven digit number while few others were asked to memorize a two digit number. Obviously memorizing a seven digit number is more mentally challenging than the two digit number and hence when the same subjects were later given a choice between eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake or a healthy fruit salad, those who had memorized seven digits were more likely to choose the cake, suggesting their brains were too fatigued to curb the desire for instant gratification.

Sue Shellenberger (who writes for the Wall Street Journal) in her article -Train Your Brain to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions very nicely explains why and how we might miss those resolutions.

“Juggling children, jobs, marriages and housework seems far more stressful to me than trying to memorize a seven-digit number. It stands to reason, then, that jugglers might have plenty of trouble keeping resolutions. Reducing stress in other areas of life sharply increases your chances of keeping a resolution, experts say, though that’s easier said than done. But it’s also possible to train other parts of the brain responsible for linking positive emotions to new habits, and conditioning yourself to new behaviors.”

She interviews behavioural experts who  say that willpower sprouts from a part of the brain located in the prefrontal cortex that is often overwhelmed and gets “pooped”. Thus, they recommend training parts of the brain to link positive feelings to desired habits and conditioning ourselves to perform these new behaviours.

For me all this discussion comes to this – Keeping to the New Year resolution is never easy. Hence choose fewer resolutions and do not just rely on will power. Like most things in life even achieving the new year resolution is a process. For example if you want to quit smoking, resolving to quit is just one part. Managing lifestyle changes like stress at work, getting alternative cessation aids, using negative and positive reinforcements (smoking causes cancer – negative reinforcement, you felt good the last time you had an urge and did not smoke – positive reinforcement ) and most importantly discussing and letting others know about your resolution are important steps towards keeping that new year resolution.

Happy New year

Prithwish

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