Five weeks into 2018 and many students are still populating the campus gyms in an attempt to follow through with their New Year’s resolutions. But how long will this last?
Many are eager to create resolutions at the start of a new year because they believe that a new year will produce a new version of them. This belief is usually seen in resolutions that aim toward healthier lifestyle habits.
Psychologists have repeatedly returned to the question of why resolutions fail to be completed. Part of the reason is due to what psychology professor Peter Herman states is the “false hope syndrome,” where resolutions end up being highly unrealistic due to a person’s incorrect perception of how easily change can be made. When resolutions end up not creating a life-changing result, people usually become discouraged and end up quitting the resolution before progress is even made.
Research has also turned towards the process of habit-making. Psychologists and neuroscientists have explained how habits play a big impact on behavior through the reshaping of the mind. Wendy Wood, a professor in psychology and business at the University of Southern California, describes how high activity is noticed in the prefrontal cortex when one is making decisions.
We know that the prefrontal cortex is related to cognition of the self and self-regulation, like planning and organizing our next move, so it’s not surprising that scans demonstrate this area as being active during the decision-making process. As Wood elaborates, this activation eventually moves to the putamen (which plays a key role in learning) over time and allows us to no longer have to actively think about a behavior to do it. It’s become a habit of sorts. Once a habit is formed, it’s incredibly difficult to break, which makes the process so attractive for those attempting to set their resolutions in stone.
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, states, “Every habit has three components: the cue, the routine itself and the reward. A huge part of understanding how to change or control your habits is diagnosing the cues and, most importantly, the reward that routine delivers to you.” A perfect example of these three components at work is the stress students feel after an exam or after hours of studying. This stress (the cue) can make students tired, which may then lead them to seek behaviors (routines) that can ease this feeling (which in itself is a reward). Whether it involves going onto your phone or taking a nap, after consistent repetition, the routine has become a habit every time the cue of stress is presented.
Since habits are difficult to break, Duhigg suggests that instead of thinking in terms of breaking your old habits for the new year and starting brand new ones, people need to change their habits by finding a new routine that corresponds to the old cue of the old habit, one that will produce a reward as well. Instead of students going onto their phones when feeling stressed, finding an alternative to this that will also ease the stress is key to forming a new habit.
“My New Year’s resolution was my usual one of going back to the gym and working on toning my figure. So far I think I have gone twice since the new year and honestly it's more progress than I have made in the past six months. I think that I want to start slow and get in the habit of going before I can work towards meeting my New Year’s resolution,” said SESP junior Priscyla Sandoval. Not only has she been successful in meeting her goals so far, but she has attributed the right mindset to the task. The resolution isn’t too unrealistic since it is not an entirely new goal for her as an avid gym user and she seems to be intuitively aware of the habit-making process. She acknowledges the reward that she wishes to achieve, which is to tone her body, and is aware that the routine that leads to this reward is going to the gym.
Some students such as Weinberg sophomore Iris Seguenza choose not to believe in the miracle that are New Year’s resolutions since, to her, they don’t need to start on any specific date. Regardless, New Year’s resolutions carry an air of magic that make many believe that the time will result in drastic changes. Students wishing for a change in 2018 must be realistic with their resolutions and take the steps toward making the change habitual. While the probability of failure may still linger, it should be used as a motivator instead of as the unwanted end result.