Saturday, January 3, 2015

Your Brain and New Year's Resolutions: The Good and Bad News

I’ve never been much of a fan of New Year’s resolutions, probably because more often than not I am in the 92% of the American population who fail to keep them.   Still, something about a new year gets me thinking about what has to change, and it’s usually connected to the fact that holiday goodies have bullied me into submission, depleting every vestige of will-power I possessed prior to Thanksgiving.  More about that later, but suffice it to say that I’m a perfect example of the good and bad news about our brains and resolutions.  So if you are in the 45% of Americans who DO make resolutions (or are even thinking about it), let me give you the good news first.      


  • People who set clear and tangible goals are ten times more likely to attain them.  This is likely because when we set our minds on something, we strengthen certain circuits between our brain cells, which in turn affects our behavior.  This means that the more we focus on a goal, the more our brain joins in to help us achieve it. 
  • Every time we think about or act on our goal, we strengthen those neuropathways, moving us closer to making them a life pattern. 
  • No matter how miserably we’ve failed in the past, our brains, due to their plasticity, are always able to change our outlook and behavior—thus we do not have to be victims of genetics, environment or even lifelong habits.   

But if all this is true, why is it that by next week, only 75 percent of us who made resolutions will be keeping them, and by the end of the year only eight percent will still be hanging on?  

Or, on a personal level, why did I succumb to holiday binging even after I’d spent three months retraining my brain to resist unhealthy eating patterns?  That leads to the bad news. 


  • Because our brains operate on a use it or lose it principle, in order to sustain lasting change, we have to continue to fire up those neuropathways between brain cells by thinking about and acting on our goals.
  • The neuropathways we use most get stronger and stronger, while those we neglect, weaken.  It’s a lot like working out—the gains can be tremendous, but a few days away from the gym and it can feel like we’re starting all over again.  In my case, once I stopped focusing daily on healthy eating and let myself get carried away by the endless supply of holiday foods, I lost the ground I’d gained in my three-month vigil.
So what’s the takeaway here?  There are no quick fixes when it comes to making critical changes in how we think and live. However, when it comes to making and keeping resolutions, our brains can be our best friends—as long as we commit to the long haul of focusing on our goals and following through with them.  Indeed, there will come a time when our brains will function happily on autopilot, making it almost second nature for us to engage in the new pattern without even thinking about it.


For the past several years, I have focused on a different kind of resolution, one that nourishes my soul, and is more about being than doing.  One of my most life-changing experiences was in 2009, when I spent 365 days focusing on what it means to live loved by God (Click here to read archived blog articles).  

This year the word I feel led to press into, is “kindness.”  I have started pondering things like: What does it mean to be kind?  What would it mean for me to be a kinder person on a daily basis?  I’m not sure what this is going to look like, but I am excited to engage my brain as I focus on this quality in a world that sorely needs it.

I’ve written a printable reflective exercise for those of you who who might want to enter 2015 with a being instead of doing goal--one inspired by the presence of God in your life.  Click here for more—it will only take about 15 minutes!  May you experience all God has for you in this coming year.