Your Brain and New Years Resolutions – What’s Going On In There?

I’m often pegged as the “anti-Resolution” guy. Not the case at all. I’m definitely the “anti-Resolution that will make you feel like shit” guy though. To understand why your New Years Resolutions end with you feeling really crappy come March you’ll need to understand just a little bit about how your brain chemistry works.

Your brain on Drugs.

The turning over of the calendar and seasons has been an important part of our development as a species. As we look back on all records of ancient civilizations, we see that humans have been obsessed with the sun, stars, and seasons ever since we stepped out of the cave. Looking ahead into the future with hope and optimism is an important part of the human experience. Without the confidence that the sun will come back tomorrow, this can be a pretty scary world.

This innate desire to look ahead with hope is so important to our survival as a species that our brains have evolved to make us feel really good when we do so. We have a built-in drug that’s better than anything you’ll find at Coachella – dopamine. Dopamine is released when we think on potential positive outcomes. It’s the butterflies you feel after a surprisingly normal Tinder encounter. It’s what you feel after getting offered that dream job. It’s the perfect combination of optimism, opportunity, challenge, and healthy fear.

Your brain on Resolutions.

Thanksgiving usually marks the beginning of the holiday season. It also marks the beginning of a lot of biological factors that contribute to an all-time low production of the miracle dopamine drug. Days are approaching their shortest of the year which means you’re getting less Vitamin D, going outside less, and your sleep cycle is all jacked up. On top of that, your routine is thrown off with weird work weeks, weird food habits, and financial stress. Compound all these biological abnormalities with increased alcohol consumption and family dynamics and you have the perfect recipe for feeling like a heap of shit.

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel! You see your schedule normalizing, holidays are in the rearview mirror, and there’s a new year ahead. You commit to get your shit together, spend less, drink less, workout more, and eat a piece of broccoli.

If you’re a coffee drinker and you’ve ever taken an extended break, you know that first cup off the wagon will knock your socks off. That’s your dopamine right now. It’s been at an all-time low, so feeling it for the first time in awhile is like a huge jolt straight to your jugular. So what should we do with it?

Put it in Context.

Use the drug – don’t try to be “too cool for school” and act like you don’t feel it. But, remind yourself that it’s a biological phenomenon and does not determine if you’re a good person, a driven person, or a disciplined person. You’re just a human with a biological body that is affected by seasons.

Know you’ll develop a Tolerance.

Just like with any drug, you’ll develop a tolerance to dopamine. It will run out in about 6 weeks. Plan on it. And plan for it.

Write down the things you’ll Tell Yourself.

This is the tough part. Once your tolerance for dopamine goes into effect, other parts of your brain will take the driver’s seat. These parts of your brain are much less concerned with the future than the dopamine part of your brain. Remember, dopamine exists to give us hope and plan for the future. Once it’s gone, the simpler — but more developed and stronger — parts of our brain will take over. Here are some things that the more short-sighted parts of our brain will say. I’M GOING TO EMPHASIZE THIS AGAIN IN HOPES THAT YOU REALLY LET IT SINK IN… YOU WILL TELL YOURSELF THESE THINGS AND THEY WILL BE VERY CONVINCING BECAUSE YOU ARE USING A DIFFERENT PART OF YOUR BRAIN. THEY WILL FEEL LIKE REALITY.

  • I’m too busy to ____.
  • Family obligations got in the way of ____.
  • Work is very _____ right now.

I know it is really hard to conceptualize competing ideas. For example, “My kids’ soccer schedule makes it to where I can’t work out.” Certainly a valid point, right? Especially valid because I get to be the “hero” that places my kids’ needs above my own. Their soccer certainly needs to take precedent over my health. Fast forward 5 years when you can’t even kick a ball with your kid because you’re too tired or out of shape. Fast forward 50 years when your kid puts their family’s lives on hold because your health has become so degenerative that you can’t live on your own.

Or “work is so busy I can’t work out.” There are mountains of evidence that show how regular, intense exercise makes you 20% more productive at work and increases your cognitive abilities three-fold. Science actually says you’re too busy to not work out.

Try this Instead.

The part of your brain responsible for delayed gratification — the main driver of your resolutions — is also the most under-developed part of your brain. The vast majority of resolutions will be some version of “exercise & diet.” These are the hardest resolutions to stick to because your brain will not be rewarded for its effort for several months or even decades.

Think of it like flossing your teeth. When are you most likely to floss? In the week leading up to your next dentist appointment, of course. Why? Because the rewards from flossing are just a week away but the consequences are decades off. Hopefully the flossing analogy helps put into context the “I’m too busy” things you’ll be telling yourself mid-February. You objectively have 60 seconds a day to floss, but most people don’t. It’s not because of time, it’s because the rewards are too far off and the consequences are even further off. Your health is the same way.

Instead of a “get in shape” or an “eat healthier” resolution, choose a skill that you’ll need in order to achieve those two. There’s an added bonus if the skill helps you in other areas of your life since the rewards will be more immediate, cementing the positive behavior deep in your brain. Here are a few “resolutions” that will not only help you get healthier but will also have positive benefits for your family, your stress levels, and your productivity at work:

  • Pack a lunch (it can be anything… even junk food) at least 4 days per week
  • Cut the average number of times you hit “snooze” in half
  • Get out of bed within 5 minutes of your alarm going off
  • Write down 3 things for which you’re grateful each morning
  • Drink a big glass of water first thing in the morning
  • Spend 5 minutes foam rolling each night

There’s no doubt that you’ll have the ability to do one of these things each and every day for the next year. Remember: consistency is the key to anything. Begin to build consistency in the tiny things and you’ll see the massive trickle-down effect it’ll have on your overall health.

-Matt

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