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The Psychology of Setting & Achieving New Year's Resolutions

By Niku Sedarat


We've all heard the phrase: "New Year, New Me." Yet, for many, the reality is often closer to "New Me, Same Old Habits." The psychology of New Year's resolutions is indeed shaky. In fact, motivational psychology suggests that these resolutions are essentially hopes and wishes adorned with glitter and confetti, and unfortunately, most of them are never achieved due to their inherent difficulty.

The challenge lies in the process of setting and implementing meaningful goals. Meaningful goals, often originating from the prefrontal cortex—a region that thinks logically and focuses on long-term benefits—encounter resistance during implementation. The amygdala and basal ganglia, components of the limbic system, come into play during this stage, triggering automatic and immediate responses that lean towards short-term behaviors and habit formation. Consequently, individuals find themselves in a struggle to align their actions with the desired long-term outcomes envisioned by the prefrontal cortex.

This scientific perspective holds true for New Year's resolutions as well. When setting a goal such as minimizing screen time, the prefrontal cortex is engaged. However, when it comes to putting this goal into action, the amygdala prompts actions that cater to short-term desires, like spending time on your phone. This creates a conflict between setting a goal and implementing it, making the latter a challenging endeavor.

While these goals may be demanding to actualize, they are not insurmountable. This is where the psychology of habit formation becomes our best friend. The basal ganglia, responsible for coordinating voluntary behaviors, in tandem with the frontal lobe, facilitates the execution of important tasks or behaviors. Habits are formed through two pathways: associative and automatic. The associative path cultivates information needed to achieve a goal, while the automatic path turns lessons from the associative path into habits. Once habits are established, they are triggered by situations. For instance, if your goal is to read a book in the morning instead of using your phone, the habit is triggered by grasping the book. Reward, or positive reinforcement, also contributes to habit formation. By repeating habits and rewarding ourselves, our brain releases "feel-good" neurochemicals like dopamine, making these actions desirable and reinforcing the habit loop.

In essence, the science shows that goal setting is not as simple as declaring a New Year's resolution at 12:01 on January 1st. Making goals into habits is a challenging task. However, utilizing the S.M.A.R.T acronym allows us to pursue our goals in a smarter fashion (no pun intended).

The S.M.A.R.T acronym stands for...

S: Specific

Be as specific as possible when setting your goal. Consider the steps and actions required, when you'll take them, how you'll know when the goal is achieved, and, most importantly, why you want to achieve it.

Remember, not all goals are entirely healthy for our well-being, so being specific, clear, and honest about the intentions of our goals is crucial.

M. Measurable

Find a way to measure your progress and identify when you've achieved your goal.

A. Achievable & Attainable

Success in achieving goals requires the availability of resources—physical or emotional. Consider what is required to complete the goal and whether these resources are accessible and attainable.

R. Relevant

Ensure your goals are relevant to your aspirations, removing external pressures or expectations. Having a goal that you genuinely want to accomplish makes it easier to actualize.

T. Timeline

Set a specific timeline for completing your goal. Specifying a date and time adds precision to your goal, giving you an accurate image of the entire process.

Evidently, goals are invaluable! With careful thought and consideration, they can significantly enhance our sense of accomplishment, achievement, and self-sufficiency—all of which are great for our mental and physical well-being. However, remember, goals are not as easily achieved as we may think. Using our S.M.A.R.T acronym allows us to set the stage for creating personally tailored goals that we are more likely to act upon and achieve.



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