How to set realistic New Year's resolutions and actually stick to them in 2021, according to a neuroscientist

  • Moran Cerf, 42, is a professor of neuroscience and business at Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern University and the Alfred P. Sloan professor at the American Film Institute.
  • Every week, he receives questions about the brain, psychology, business, and behavior via email from people who attend his talks; below are his answers to two recent questions.
  • In today's column, he covers how to use neuroscience to make effective New Year's resolutions and manage relationship stress while stuck at home during the pandemic.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Q: The new year is coming, and with it the 'New Year' resolutions. I don't have any profound resolutions, but I wonder if there is any advice on how to make realistic ones that I can actually follow?

Moran Cerf.Moran Cerf

New Year's resolutions serve multiple purposes. One is the fulfillment of the resolution. The other is the making of a resolution (i.e., just saying out loud: "This year I will work out at least twice a week").

The idea is that spending time thinking of what it is you want to accomplish (even if you don't manage to actually do it) serves a purpose: It elevates a buried thought into working memory. It will actually be in your mind more later. There's neuroscience research on dreams suggesting that if you elevate a plan or mental activity into your working memory repeatedly, it's likely to emerge in your dreams and help your brain 'simulate' the experience fully, so that your brain makes concrete plans on how to execute it.

To make resolutions you'll follow through with, start by choosing realistic ones. Here are a couple of easy steps to do this:

1. Keep a diary of your resolutions

If you had a note on your resolutions from last year now, you'd be able to look at it and see how true you were to your 2020 ones. Granted, this was an unusual year…so maybe not achieving some of your plans shouldn't be held against you. But the point is that you should keep a tab and evaluate yourself annually. You'll be able to see how realistic you were before and how close you were to reaching your goals. Once you know the answer, you can adjust this year's resolutions accordingly.

2. Make your resolutions with someone else

Research, specifically on exercise and group decision-making, shows people make more realistic plans and live up to them when they're made with others. If you make resolutions with others, you're likely to already correct each other for your "true identity." Alone, you might say, "Yeah, I can save an additional $1,000 a month," but if you loop in a partner or friend, they might remind you of some forgotten expenses and help you arrive at a more realistic savings goal.

3. Rank your resolutions from most to least important

Make your list, pick only the top two, and write them as your 2021 resolutions. If you realize in December 2021 that you managed to accomplish both, next year you get to choose four. If you didn't, next year you only get one. If your resolutions are large, such as reading 30 books before the end of the year, break them into smaller, tangible sub-resolutions and see if you accomplish those (i.e., read two new books in January).

4. Ask your friends what their resolutions were last year

Then ask yourself if you would have accomplished theirs had those been yours. This way you'll have a mini internal simulation of how good you are, generally, in accomplishing the type of things other people try to do in a year. You will know your friends' circumstances, the type of journeys this year brought on you/them, and how things went for you/them. This made-up simulation will force your brain to visualize the challenges, potential obstacles, and how you would overcome them. 

Read more: I'm a psychology professor and expert on creativity. Your environment is crucial to the success of your brainstorming session — here's how to tweak your space for maximum creativity.

Now comes the execution. Here are a few tips on that:

1. Keep an honest tab on yourself

Turns out a lot of people make resolutions and either "forget" them or amend them. But if you have a note with the original resolution pinned to your fridge, it's hard to tell yourself that the weekly walk is meeting your "work out every other day" goal. If your resolutions are more private/intimate and you don't want them on the public fridge, put them in a place that's secure, but one that you encounter frequently.

2. Evaluate the resolution every quarter

A year is a long time. If you only visit your resolutions annually, you'll have too few chances for correction (and our brain doesn't do a good job in thinking far into the future). Check how you're doing every three months, and see if there are ways to adjust or improve your plan.

3. Choose a realistic accountability mechanism

There are two methods you can use. First, 'the carrot': Find a person you trust to be honest with you and tell them what your resolution is. Then ask them to help you make it happen, while finding a way — in advance — to tie a reward to them with your success (i.e., if you manage to get the pilot license that you wanted, they get to go with you on the first flight). This will incentivize others to facilitate things for you. 

Or, use 'the stick': For example, find something that you really do not like and create a related money-order that gets executed automatically on December 31, 2021, if you do not accomplish it. If you are, say, a Cubs fan, put money for donation to the Cardinals charity. Come December 31, 2021, if you managed to live up to the resolution, you can stop the transaction. Otherwise, you will see the money going to the team/cause you dislike.

The point is that hopefully seeing money being drawn from your account on December 31, 2021 will drive you to make realistic resolutions for 2022.

Where I used to live in Los Angeles, there was a gym that asked people who signed up by December 31 to pay $700 upfront for the year. Every day you showed up to the gym you got $2 back. If you ended up going every day you would have earned your $700 back, plus $30 extra, which seems like a great deal. Still, a lot of people signed up and ended up paying about $600 for the year — a good way to make people see their resolutions burn in a very clear way.

Read more: Coaches, founders, and executives share how they're setting goals for 2021

Q: I have been with my partner for eight years, married for two years, and our relationship was very good throughout. The pandemic forced us to be at home, together, all the time and it's not great. In the last couple of months we are getting on each other's nerves constantly, and generally feel like things are deteriorating fast. Any neuroscience thoughts on our situation?

Your situation is surprisingly normal. Some of the worst arguments, mental challenges, and overall frustration within close-knit relationships occurs in the '3rd quarter' of a time period. 

For example, research from two colleagues of mine — Professors Leslie DeChurch and Noshir Contractor — showed this when groups are placed in a challenging experience for a long period. They studied NASA astronauts training for the mission to Mars who were asked to live in a small capsule for about eight months, with little outside interaction outside of the same two to three people in their group. Across multiple teams going through this experience, they found that there seemed to be a decline in the relationship and group dynamics in the third quarter of the journey (months five and six out of the eight). 

Turns out sports coaches know this, and so do organizational behavior researchers. Basketball teams tend to play worse in the third quarter of a game unless the coach manages specifically for that period. Companies also tend to have the most challenging crises in the third quarter of the year.

Read more: Women are leaving the workforce in droves — and companies will suffer. Here are 5 urgent steps employers must take to help women succeed in the workplace.

If you think of the pandemic experience as an about 1.5-year experience we're all going through, then we're now exactly at the third quarter. Meaning, things will be harder in the coming weeks. If you and your husband frame the challenges as part of this third quarter challenge, thinking "We are now in this quarter when things might be harder," and realizing that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, you'll have a better chance in dealing with it and interacting with each other in healthier, more compassionate ways.

Moran Cerf is a professor of neuroscience and business who explores how we can harness our understanding of the brain to improve our behavior, our business, and society. He's a former hacker, a science consultant to Hollywood films and TV shows, and the founder of a number of companies.

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