I hate the New Years resolution craze. From its growing capitalist bastardization wherein fitness clubs, and CEOs, and celebrities exploit your good intentions to the perpetuation of unsafe dieting, to its perpetuation of unhealthy beauty standards (that are responsible for girls hating their bodies as early as age 6) it has as much potential to cause damage as it does to motivate actual positive change.
As someone who has struggled with mental illness (depression and disordered eating, specifically) for the better part of my life, I learned the skills that allow me to live a healthy life, but I’m always hyper-aware of old thoughts and habits that try to creep back in, especially this time of year. My secret? I said no more to making decisions based on manipulation and feelings of inadequacy, and instead, I chose to make changes that made me happy from the inside out using a set of tactics based firmly in brain science. I’m going to share them with you so that, together, we can get rid of resolutions and quit waiting for a date on the calendar to start a Personal Revolution.
The Birth and Death of a Habit
Habits are created through repeated action over an extended period of time. During their development, something called cortical excitability occurs, where the neural pathway used in the execution of the behavior (whether it is a physical act or pattern of thought/emotional response) becomes activated and, over repeated use, becomes a well-worn pathway. This is when you stop making conscious decisions about your choices. The creation of this path (and the secret to developing new, healthier ones) is known as neuroplasticity.
Habits don’t just come out of nowhere, though. If you pay attention, you will notice that they all have a trigger. They are a response to a specific task, stressor, or associated to a past event. You’ll need to dig deep to resolve some of these.
Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks
Emerging research in the field of neuroscience is teaching us that thinking about habits and skills as being permanently fixed by adulthood is outdated and just plain wrong. Remember that term I used: neuroplasticity? Well, you can use that to your advantage with goal oriented and intentional behavior. You can decide to act differently, and when you make this choice frequently, you’re developing new main pathways as the old ones shrink, and your new choices become effortless over time.
Mind(set) over Matter
Your habits can be physical actions, but they can also be thought patterns. These can be the hardest to break because sometimes the triggers to those habits are so deeply ingrained in our history that they have become our inner-voice, a part of our Self.
This is where Mindset comes in. To help you understand incredibly complex and overlapping fields of research, I’ve condensed it to this: When you simply think your brain has the ability and potential to grow, you behave differently, causing an increase in achievement and motivation. (This is called Growth Mindset). When you focus on your strengths instead of short-comings, you change how you feel and experience increased, sustained well-being. (This is from Positive Psychology.)
Apply this basic knowledge to your existing habits of thought and emotion, and you can employ the power of neuroplasticity to reroute your thought patterns from limiting and negative to motivating and progressive.
Still feeling the need to make a change? Here’s what to do next:
Creating Your New Year’s Revolution
1. Love yourself.
Decide if you are changing for yourself or if it’s one more exhausting, demoralizing effort to squeeze yourself into a mold. How can you tell? Look for the person who stands to benefit off of it first, if it’s not you… re-evaluate your decision. Then, put that mindset into play. Don’t be hard on yourself. Instead of saying, “I’m a failure,” say, “This is hard, but I know I can do it and I’m worth the effort.” (Turn Positive/Growth Mindset into your first new habit)
2. Be Abundant.
Don’t put your focus on the things you need to cut out of your diet or behavior.
Don’t focus on not having enough or not being enough. Start with what you’re grateful for and capable of. (This will also keep you from padding someone else’s pockets looking for a quick fix.)
Celebrate the small gains. Your success is not determined by how drastically your transformation shows on the outside, nor how it compares to anyone else’s. You determine the metric of your success. Be proud of yourself, dammit.
3. Take Your Time.
Think of this as a personal evolution. Your habits–just like the opposable thumb–didn’t show up overnight, so they’re not going away quickly either.
You have to make the choice to follow through even when it’s hard (which, again, becomes a habit all its own).
4. Don’t fight an uphill battle.
If you are struggling because of seasonal or other biological factors, choose something small and attainable to start, and see Steps 1-3.
You don’t have to make sweeping changes, and they certainly don’t need to happen all at once. Basically, don’t go “cold turkey.” Instead, simply replace a bad habit with a good one, like reaching for your water instead of a sugary snack or drink, or taking a breath instead of overreacting.
5. Leverage the power of your brain.
When you begin replacing an unhealthy habit with a positive one, find a way to make your new choice feel good. For example, decorate your water bottle with a sticker that makes you smile. Breathe deep, smile or give a hug before you react. When you do this, you’re releasing feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin (think of it as rewarding yourself for good behavior) and your replacement behavior will become habit faster.
The science is clear: you have the power to make the changes you want and your mindset is the key to your happiness. Whatever you decide, don’t make your choice because of the date on the calendar or some slick marketing tactic. Never feel obligated to make another ineffective resolution ever again, because now you know the secret to lasting success is to start a Personal Revolution.
Need Proof? Watch this video:
Learn about Andrew Short, currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Disability Studies, who also lives with cerebral palsy. He and his trainer Lee, are applying the concept of neuroplasticity to overcome the challenges of his disability.