I’m pretty sure you’ve done it too, at one moment or another. Somewhere between the bubbles of Champagne slowly rising to the surface of your crystal glass. You assembled your courage and made a solemn vow to improve your life by changing that one thing standing between you and your future improved self. Then, three months later, you slowly realized how you failed miserably yet again to keep your promises. Your feelings of guilt started dancing a paso doble with your discouragement, as deep down inside you actually felt relieved that you didn’t have to fake it anymore and could drop the effort to make that change.
Sounds familiar? Good! that makes you a normal human being with some real life experience. Exactly the kind of person I was trying to reach with this post.
So why is it so hard to keep our New Year’s resolutions? Or any promise of change made to ourselves for that matter?
This actually has everything to do with how our brain is wired, and how it makes new connections. You see, the information in our brain follows a certain path. The thing is, the more we use a certain path, the stronger it becomes. It grows into some kind of super highway. Not only does the information travels easier and faster, but it becomes drawn to the most travelled road. If you wish to take the other path, you need to consciously override this autopilot, which demands quite some cognitive effort actually. This is what happens when we try to put in place new habits. Slowly, over time, as the old highway isn’t used that much anymore, it will downgrade to a smaller road, or even a small path. This means that as long as the old road is bigger than the new one, our first reaction will be to take the old one, making a mental effort to override that decision, and then take the new one.
so why don’t we just make that effort consistently until the balance has shifted? The tricky part has to do with the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. When we make a change based on intrinsic motivations, which vary for each of us based on our personality, it will be as simple as that: just consistently override the autopilot until a new habit is formed. the intrinsic joy of performing the new habit gives enough satisfaction and joy to stick to it.
The thing with New Year’s resolutions, is that they usually are not linked to intrinsic motivators. worse, we often consciously link them to extrinsic motivators. We reward ourselves for the effort done. As good advice as that may sound, this is part of the problem, and here is why:
extrinsic motivators are by definition not sustainable and result driven. When you link your new behavior to a non-sustainable source of motivation, the motivation will have to be repeated over and over again, based on results. If, for whatever reason, you don’t achieve results, there is no motivator, the behavior will not get reinforced, which leads to massive quitting of the new behavior. Hence the failure of New Year’s resolutions.
I know by now, you don’t like anymore what you’re reading. If we can’t even reward ourselves for an effort done, because it ends up being counterproductive, isn’t that kind of sad? Only pain and no gain?
Don’t worry. The solution is actually much more fun than the extrinsic motivational one. Instead of linking the results of the behavior to an external motivator, what we really should be doing is linking the actual behavior (and not only the result) to an intrinsic motivator.
Let me give you an example. Let’s take hypothetical Suzanne who wants to loose weight. She goes to the Gym (which she hates) and everytime she looses one pound, she rewards herself by going shopping (the external motivator). If she doesn’t loose weight, there is no reward, and dropping out is lurking around the corner. So instead of linking the result (losing weight), she should link the activity (exercising) to something she loves.
How? Well that depends on the personality of hypothetical Suzanne. If she’s a social person, she could go to the gym with friends. If she likes music, she could exercise whilst listening to her favorite band. If she’s a competitive person, she could throw down challenges for herself. You get the idea.
This way, the activity itself becomes rewarding, and not only the result. Even if one week she doesn’t loose weight because of X or Y reason, she’s not punishing herself twice as with the extrinsic approach (no result and no reward). Linking your behavior to your intrinsic motivation makes it enjoyable and thus sustainable.
Happy New Year everybody, make it a formidable year with lots of intrinsic motivation and joy!