On January 1st you made a promise to yourself to eat less sugar, drink more water, work out regularly, or budget better. What are the chances that pledge will stick a few months down the line? Anywhere from 10 percent to 44 percent, depending on the studies you look at.

Set Your Brain Up For Change

But, here’s what’s really interesting. Making some kind of formal proclamation (like in the form of a resolution) means you are ten times more likely to change compared to non-resolvers—people who don’t make any resolutions—with identical goals and comparable motivation, says John C. Norcross, Ph.D., distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing your Goals and Resolutions.  And don’t think that you’ve failed if you haven’t reached your goals in the first 30 days; one study found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit or break an old one.

Even if you’ve said to yourself, “I’ll start tomorrow” every morning since New Year’s Day, it’s not too late to kick resolutions into high gear. “It’s preparation; [successful resolvers] are engaging in specific behavior,” Dr. Norcross says. “And the brain is behavior. Any time you change a long-term behavior, there are long-term changes in the brain.”

Understand The Relationship Between Brain Heath and Habits

Part of why we succeed at breaking a bad habit or starting some new positive change may boil down to how fit your brain is. “The ability to hold a resolution is a function of brain health,” says Kavli Prize-winning neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich. You’re more likely to stay on task, he notes, if your brain has a healthy executive function—the brain’s control mechanism used in planning, reasoning, and decision making.

The flip side of that is that less healthy brains may have an even harder time. Among those who fall into this category are people who have depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, severe substance use disorder (addictions), and OCD. The reason is that they have less gray matter in the areas of the brain that control executive function according to a large multi-part study by Stanford neuroscientist and psychiatrist, Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, and his colleagues who looked at over 7,000 brain images.

The good news is you can always improve your ability to focus and strengthen your self-control. Merzenich adds: “The brain is designed to remodel itself as a function of its use—that’s brain plasticity.”

Navigate Your Neurons

One study found that neuron firing patterns in a part of the brain called the striatum—located in the forebrain’s basal ganglia, known to control voluntary movement—change as animals learn a new habit. At first, neurons fire continuously throughout a task. But as you become better at it, the neuron firing becomes clustered at the beginning and the end. And once these patterns form, they’re hard to break.

At first, you can jump start a habit by reducing friction (putting your gym clothes out the night before) or coupling the new thing you want to do with something you already do (meditate while you brush your teeth). Once you get this under your belt, the goal is to let your brain take over.

Think of it this way. Have you ever lost power in your house and yet every time you walk into a new room, you try to turn on the light switch? That’s your basal ganglia at work. It’s basically your auto-pilot and it sends messages to the rest of your body to do things you’re not exactly consciously thinking about. In essence you move from being goal-directed (“I want to lose weight so I’ll go to the gym.”) to habit directed (“When I wake up, I put my gym clothes on and go to the gym.”) This is where the magic for developing routines that stick happens.

Start A Chemical Reaction

In addition, Dr. Merzenich explains there is chemical machinery in the brain that controls how bright and alert you feel and this also helps power new habits. Here’s how: When you experience something unexpected, you release a primary chemical agent called noradrenaline. “It basically turns on the lights and amplifies the activity in the brain for a period of time,” Merzenich says. If you engage it every day, reliably after a period of time you’re more engrossed in the task.

Dopamine has a similar affect. When we’re hopeful and appreciative, dopamine floods into the body. This gives us a mood rush and turns up the learning centers in the brain, which makes us more engaged and motivated. And, it’s why so many people have tuned into dopamine fasting to break bad habits.

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Last Updated: Jan 10, 2020