If you are like me, the new year brings a pressure of improvement. Should I focus more on my health? Maybe I should be better at practicing gratitude. Maybe, just maybe, if I can hack this whole setting up a routine thing, I can make my brain stick to it. This puff of encouragement does spark some movement, but the end of January comes around, and that New Year, New Me feeling dissipates. Why is that?
After years of seeing this pattern, I decided to look into it. Why do New Year Resolutions not stick? The answer is that our brains don’t like change, and new habits change the brain. Our brain is made up of many neural pathways, and those neural pathways get stronger the more you use them. It’s like a hiking trail; if one person walks through a path in the woods once, there may be some faint signs that a path was formed. If that same person uses that path every day for ten years, the pathway will become more permanent, and anyone passing by will be able to tell that it is, in fact, a walkway.
Sticking with this trail metaphor, imagine that the person decides to start taking a new pathway to their destination. This new pathway will have obstacles to navigate; it will likely take longer to get where they are going because of brush and trees. Naturally, the person may fall back to the well-worn path because it gets them to their destination much easier. That is what our brains do when we try to change our habits. They get frustrated, and often, we want to take the easier, well-established route even if we have a good reason to change.
So then the question is, how do we navigate healthy change when our brains are fighting against it? The answer lies in how our brain prioritizes rewards. As much as our brain dislikes change, it is a sucker for a hit of that reward dopamine, and it avoids things that take away from that (bummer alert but procrastination and avoidance give our brain a reward signal). We must find a way to associate the change we want to achieve with a reward that outweighs the temporary satisfaction of avoidance. This reward doesn’t have to be monetary or materialized; it can be as simple as some positive reinforcement from a support system or an intentional celebration from yourself.
Talking positively about your progress can completely alter how the brain responds to change. In the therapy world, we call this a positive mindset shift. Instead of saying to yourself, “I need to go to the gym to lose weight because I am so unhealthy,” try, “I deserve to show up for myself today and move my body for a couple of minutes because I know it feels good.” Instead of saying, “I need to be less negative all the time,” try, “I have a lot of things in my life to celebrate; what are some ways I can focus on that today?”. When we focus on what we need and less on shame, the process of change becomes less of a consequence and more of intentional self-care.
Change is not linear. There will be days that you need different things. We only need to complete something 80% of the time to form those new neural pathways. Be gentle with your progress and use your natural supports when being gentle that day doesn’t come easy.
The New Year presents an opportunity for personal growth and new habits aligning with our aspirations. Navigating change can be daunting, and feeling uncertain about the path ahead is natural. If you seek guidance and support on your journey, opens in a new windowplease schedule an appointment with one of our opens in a new windowlicensed therapists.