A Brain-Based Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

At the end of each year, millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Yours may be to lose weight, go to the gym more often, do a better job keeping up with old friends or just to watch less TV. These are all great goals, but you’re probably not going to reach them.

You’re not alone. One study found that only 19 percent of people making New Year’s resolutions stuck to them after two years. And yet, self-help is a $10 billion annual industry in the US. It seems we are much better at committing to improving our lives than we are at actually improving them.

The problem is, we are approaching our resolutions unrealistically. We’re pretending that the only thing standing between now and a future where we’ve achieved our goals is an open declaration that we plan to attain them. We’re imagining that by stating our intentions aloud, our brains will somehow stop making unhealthy choices. It just doesn’t work that way.

If we want to successfully follow through with our plans, we need to shift our focus and stop neglecting a fundamental part of the puzzle. Our ability to make and continue to make good choices is a reflection of the state of our brains. To reach our goals, we need a unified team. Simply put, we need our brains to play for our side. But too often, the opposite is true. So what is it that makes the difference?

As demonstrated by recent scientific research, our lifestyle choices are providing constant messages to our brain, changing their patterns of connection and even their physical architecture. More importantly, our choices majorly influence the way our brains operate. Depending on how we treat our brains, they can be wired for good decisions or built for poor choices.

This double-edged sword is constantly in effect. As one example, many of us choose to routinely sacrifice sleep. While seemingly trivial, this decision is linked to increased activation in the brain’s reward system. And why does this matter? People with even partial sleep deprivation eat almost 400 extra calories per day compared to those getting a full night’s sleep.

On the other end of the spectrum, as little as 5 minutes of mindfulness may be sufficient to decrease impulsive decisions. Moderate or intense physical exercise appears to boost executive functions, which are the backbone of good decision-making. Both of these processes are linked to increased activation of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is critical in allowing us to achieve our long-term objectives.

The bottom line is that our decisions change our brains, but our brains also change our decisions. It means we have the option of building a brain that helps us to reach our goals or one that facilitates repeated failure. Though a variety of factors influence our brains in both directions, making these three changes will help you generate a brain that supports you in reaching your goals.

1. Start prioritizing sleep:

American adults are accumulating tremendous sleep debt, with 20 to 30 percent of adults getting 6 or fewer hours a night. Getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night is associated with clearer thinking, less emotional reactivity, and less impulsivity, helping to wire your brain to allow you to achieve your goals.

2. Incorporate stress reduction techniques into your day:

We are rapidly coming to appreciate that chronic stress is harmful to the entire body. As it relates to our brains and our choices, chronic stress is strongly linked to more impulsive decision-making. There are many studied ways to decrease stress, including meditation/mindfulness techniques, nature exposure and moderate levels of exercise.

3. Provide the building blocks for a healthy brain:

Like the rest of our bodies, our brains are constructed out of the food we ingest. But unlike your other organs, you won’t always get a clear message when your brain is working against you.

The best, most straightforward way of supporting your brain through nutrition is to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. As if it wasn’t enough that chronic inflammation strongly related to long-term cognitive decline, we now understand that even acute inflammation can lead us to short-term decisions. This makes the pro-inflammatory standard American diet all the more concerning. Though highly simplified, an inflammation-reducing diet is low in refined carbohydrates, added sugars and overly processed oils (like vegetable oils). On the other hand, consuming more anti-inflammatory foods like fiber and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables as well as healthy fats will help swing the balance away from inflammation and towards better brain health and better decisions.

Dr. Austin Perlmutter, co-author of BRAIN WASH, is a board-certified internal medicine physician.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store