Twelve days. That’s the length of time most people keep New Year’s resolutions, according to one 2018 study. We mean well when we make decisions to change, but in most cases, getting out of the rut of habits and ingrained routines proves too hard.
New Years Resolutions That Last
As the High Holidays approach, here’s how to make real changes and get the new year off to a fresh start
Recent research sheds light on why change can be so daunting – and can also teach us tricks to use to make our resolutions stick.
Our brains use more than one mode of thinking. For some tasks, we employ a deliberative mode (called “System 2” by neuropsychologists). This is the thinking we use when tackling difficult tasks that require a lot of thought. What is 24 x 87? What’s the quickest way to drive to the airport? How should you handle a difficult client? These sorts of tasks require concentration: our brains are able to perform this sort of thinking but it requires a lot of effort.
Most tasks are shunted to a different mode of thinking (sometimes called “System 1”). This brain behavior governs activities like smiling at a friend, stepping around someone who’s stopped on the sidewalk in front of us, and navigating our daily route to work. It’s our brain on autopilot and the type of thinking we’re hard-wired to prefer. Some researchers refer to this type of thinking as our “default”, presenting us with the easiest, least thought-intensive options.
The problem with resolutions is that too often they tap into the first mode of thought. I want to exercise more, eat better and carve out more time to take classes, but as long as they feel like difficult deliberate choices instead of my natural, default way of doing things, they will seem hard and unnatural. One way to trick the brain into performing new activities is to make goals seem like easier, default choices.
We all have areas in our life that can benefit from change and growth. Set aside time to consider your individual goals and brainstorm ways to make your desired outcomes your new “default”.
AMP UP YOUR EXPECTATIONS
In 1965, teachers in a San Francisco elementary school were given lists of students who were likely to have amazing “growth spurts” in the coming year. A Harvard psychologist, Robert Rosenthal, had tested all of the children, and was able to inform their teachers which kids were likely to achieve great things in the coming months.
At the end of the year, the teachers’ experience tallied with Dr. Rosenthal’s: those students he predicted would have growth spurts did so, enjoying above-average intellectual success across the board in school.
What the teachers didn’t know was that the list of names they were given at the beginning of the year was entirely randomly-generated. There was no academic test; each teacher was given a list of arbitrary names. Yet the students’ growth was real. When teachers expected more from those students, the students delivered, increasing their performance in class. The IQs of those students identified as “Growth Spurters” also increased, measuring much higher after the academic year than at the beginning, and increasing significantly in relation to their peers.
This year, view yourself as a “Growth Spurter.” Give yourself the gift of believing in yourself and watch yourself grow into your higher expectations.
BREAK YOUR ROUTINE
When we learn new skills we use our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain in charge of deliberate, rational thought. (Think of learning to drive: first-time drivers don’t carry on conversations, for instance – all their attention is focused on what they’re doing.) Once we master a skill, however, it gets downgraded to our basal ganglia, a part of our brains that is associated with emotion and memory. (This is why driving is second nature to us, allowing us to talk or listen to the radio with one part of our brains while we use another to navigate a car.) Finally, our brains experience a third emotion: pleasure, when a habitual act is completed.
We tend to perform activities the same way each time when we’re in our usual environment. Changing our surroundings, however, breaks up the three-part loop that governs habits in our brains. When our usual cues and rewards are absent, it’s easier to change our behavior.
This year, consider ways to go someplace new – literally. Volunteering at a new place, joining a new community, reaching out to new people are all ways to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, escape our default ways of doing things, and give ourselves space to be someone new.
The people we surround ourselves with are crucial to our own behavior.
In one recent study monitoring students who transferred to a new university, entrenched habits like reading the newspaper, exercising, and watching television were all altered; transfer students quickly conformed to the habits of their new community.
EVALUATE YOUR SOCIAL CIRCLE
The people we surround ourselves with have profound effects on the way we do things and the decisions we make. Even our most intimate choices might be influenced by those in our wider community. One study found that being privy to the details of a friend’s divorce increased one’s own chances of getting divorced by 75% – even hearing about the divorce of a friend of a friend raised one’s own chances of divorce a shocking 33%.
Positive effects also flow from being part of a community. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel recognized the importance of community in shaping our goals and sense of self. He counseled his students: “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). We all are stronger when we reach out to others and share in a set of values and goals.
This year, take a look at your social connections. Ask yourself how you can spend time with those whose values and lifestyle you want to share. Consider strengthening your links to your local Jewish community, and allowing the support and connectedness of your community to enrich you as well.
Recent research shows that spending time with people who are dear to us profoundly affects our physical well-being. In one major study, physical wounds healed faster for people who had close, positive relationships in their lives. Another study found that people who feel they have close relationships are more productive at work.
QUALITY TIME WITH LOVED ONES
In today’s hyper-busy world, it can feel next-to-impossible to carve out quality time to spend with those we care about. Fortunately, Jewish tradition provides a built-in opportunity for spending quality time with friends and family each week by slowing down and coming together over meals on Shabbat. Disconnecting from all our gadgets makes sure we spend quality face-to-face time at home. There’s even research to back up the benefits of these weekly meals: eating regular family meals together is associated with lower levels of stress for kids and adults. For children, eating a family meal is also connected to lower levels of drug abuse, higher grades, and better health.
AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Saying thank you is one of the most powerful ways we can move beyond our old habits and transform our lives.
In a ground-breaking study a little over a decade ago, Dr. Robert Emmons of University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami asked one group to write in journals about their daily lives and another group to work through their problems and irritations in their writing. A third group was asked to focus on writing things they were grateful for.
At the end of the study, they found something remarkable: the participants who used their journals to record what they were thankful for reported markedly higher levels of happiness and well-being. Their entire demeanor was altered by the experiment. They displayed higher levels of energy, determination, alertness, attentiveness and enthusiasm. This translated into concrete action, as well. People who kept gratitude lists were more likely to make progress towards important goals.
It isn’t only writing down what we’re grateful for that can have this profound effect: the researchers also found that attending religious services, praying, and studying religion also creates a feeling of gratitude that can transform our lives.
SET ASIDE TIME TO STUDY
Hillel advised, “Do not say, ‘When I am free I will study’, for perhaps you will not become free” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). If it was difficult back then to carve out time for studying and taking classes, it surely feels next to impossible today in our crazy-busy world. The only solution to having no time, it seems, is changing our default setting to making time to learn and grow.
A friend of mine hosts a weekly class at her house because it was the only way she could ensure she’d actually find the time to attend. One friend hired a rabbi to come to his house each week after work to learn Torah. Another friend hired a personal trainer to come early in the morning and get her moving. They all found ways to make taking classes or carving out time for study or other lessons part of their weekly routines.
While every day is a chance to make new resolutions and grow, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is especially propitious. May our new year be filled with success and blessings, and may we all be successful in achieving the goals we set now throughout our year.