There is a great article (paywall) in the Wall Street Journal today that...
January: New Year Resolutions
After gifts are opened, the eggnog quaffed, and the tree dismantled, people start planning their New Year resolutions.
Sue Shellenbarger writes in the Wall Street Journal about how people approach their resolutions. Willpower is what most people think they need, but Shellenbarger has found several experts who say that willpower is the wrong approach. Her experts suggest that training the brain to connect positive emotions to new habits and then conditioning oneself to new behaviors are more effective strategies.
This morning I saw a client who was talking about her New Year resolutions. She said: “I’m going to stop running through yellow lights.” I asked her how she planned to accomplish that goal after so many years of disregarding the yellow lights. She responded : “I know the lights I tend to skip through. I know that I do it when I’m behind so I plan to be more punctual and mindful of safety for myself and others.“
Willpower is located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It becomes overloaded and depleted easily so it’s smarter to develop other parts of the brain such as the cortex where neuroplasticity occurs. Neuroplasticity is the process by which experience produces changes in the brain. Norman Doidge in his book The Brain that Changes Itself describes how neuroplasticity rewires the brain, like strengthening a weak muscle. The brain cells (neurons) that work together eventually wire together. In other words, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Doidge believes this is why people can modify their behavior over time, which would help us all keep our New Year resolutions.
Cognitive-behavioral strategies can be helpful to train the brain. Looking at my client, she has the cognitive idea of what behavior she wants to change, i.e. not running yellow lights. She’s thinking about it actively and envisioning how she will feel after a month of not running those lights. She’s envisioning the roads and anticipating problems with running late. She expects some failure.
My client: “Oh yes, and I plan to reward myself with a cup of favorite coffee at the end of January.”