As we hurtle towards another New Year it’s natural to look not just to the future ahead but also back over the past year. Looking over the last 365 days I see many things that I had wanted, but didn’t quite manage, to achieve. Looking ahead there are many things I would still like to do or habits I would like to change. Should I set myself resolutions? Would that be helpful? I feel I veer wildly between being too ambitious and setting myself up for failure (“I’m going to exercise every day, for an hour!”) and not ambitious enough. Last year I gave up coffee for a month. And then what? I started drinking it again.*
There are two main schools of thought behind brain behaviour science that influence the success of New Year’s resolutions: the science of habit and the science of self-stories.
Forming New Habits
The former involves starting small and attaching it to a previous habit. “I will get fit” is both ambitious and vague, neither of which are helpful. You are setting yourself up for failure. “I will take the stairs at work” or “I will walk the dog for an extra ten minutes” is more manageable because you attach a specific intent to an already established routine: going to work or walking the dog. If you can manage this for a week, you might just re-condition your old habits into new ones.
Now the self-stories theory – to me as a writer – is more interesting. In his book, Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, social psychologist Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behaviour long-term.
You can read an interview with him about it here.
One technique he outlines is “story-editing”. We all have stories about ourselves operating at all times that drive our behaviour, an idea of who we are. These have a powerful influence on our decisions and actions: we want to make decisions that match our idea of ourselves. Most of this decision-making based on stories happens subconsciously but it is possible to actively rewrite the underlying stories. Literally. Through a series of exercises. And by changing the underlying self-story that is operating, you can change your behaviour.
So, for example, if you claim not to like gyms and therefore by extension exercise you could rewrite this. You don’t like gyms but you feel good after exercise so you have found a yoga class/Nordic walking/running club (delete as appropriate) that you enjoy. If you don’t have time to exercise because you’re always putting your family’s needs first, be less of a martyr – persuade, bribe or employ someone else to babysit or even cook dinner while you go to the gym (or yoga class or that Nordic walking/running club).
You can even change personality traits. Want to be more optimistic? Rewrite the story so you are a glass half-full person. Want to be less of a nag when your kids are making you all late? Rewrite your story so you are more laid-back. Perhaps your kids will learn better time-keeping this way anyway.
The technique of story-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But the research shows that one re-written self-story can make all the difference.
Give it a try
What have you got to lose? This year use perhaps try science over willpower to create and stick to your New Year’s resolutions.
How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions? Should we bother with them? If so, what are you goals this year and do you have any tips on how to keep to them?
*Now it’s been announced that drinking coffee does have health benefits after all (I feel a post brewing). Who knew?