Why can't we keep our New Year's Resolutions?

By Tim Mugabi

If we made New Year's Resolutions, statistics say that we've broken them already! The question is why, and what can be done about it?...

During the last week of December and first week in January, many of us find ourselves looking back on the past year whilst looking forward to the New Year. We can often look back with pride at the things we managed to achieve, feeling a warm glow as we remember the good times the past year brought us and as we anticipate the ones ahead. But thereís also the flip side of the coin, as we remember the things that didnít quite work out; regretting the opportunities we let pass us by and the progress we failed to make. We often feel the regret even more if we feel that thereís something we felt we could have done differently, if we held ourselves back. Vowing not to let ourselves down again, we come up with our new yearís resolutions.

Our resolutions are a list of things that we commit to in an effort to make our lives better. You can pretty much split resolutions into two categories: things that we want to stop doing, or things we want to start doing. Being even more specific, our resolutions are habits we want to break, or habits we want to create. At a deep level we believe these habits will make us better people in say way, enhancing our lives in the process.

The question is, why is it that we canít stick to our resolutions? Why is it that despite the fact that we know that sticking to our resolutions will make things better, we fall back into our old ways? Why is it that some of us have the same resolutions year after year?

Brain 101

Following through on your resolutions can be enhanced with a little understanding of how your brain works. Essentially your brain is made up of millions of connections known as neural pathways in which everything that you know or know how to do is stored. Furthermore, the more that you reinforce what you have learnt, the stronger the association becomes. Think of a chisel making a groove into a block of wood; if you chisel into the wood the first time, the groove will only be so deep. But the more you chisel away at the same spot, the deeper the groove in the wood. The same is true of repetition and the neural pathways.

Each of one of our habits is made up of these neural pathways, the rule of thumb being that the longer youíve had the habit, the stronger the pathway that represents the habit. When it comes to our resolutions, one of two things needs to happen: we need to form a new pathway for a new habit, or get rid of an old pathway so we break an existing habit. However when want to break an old habit, what we really need to do is get into the habit of not doing the old habit and this requires a new neural pathway. So in essence, any resolution needs a new pathway.


Now weíve covered the concept of neural pathways, we can shed some light on why we often face an uphill battle in sticking to our resolutions. Weíre trying to create some new habits but in doing so we are going up against long established ones; in other words, a strong neural pathway. The first few days of sticking to a resolution are manageable, we get through on willpower alone. Then the old neural pathways start to stand their ground. We start to waver, staying the course starts to feel difficult. Then we start to rationalise; why are we doing this to ourselves anyway? Itís around this point that we break our resolutions and fall back into our own ways; this is known as backsliding.

Backsliding is generally accompanied with feelings of release and relief; the increasingly tough grind of sticking to our resolutions replaced with the relative ease of our familiar ways. Though at the same time, we experience mild feelings of disappointment and guilt at not staying the course. Soon enough we shake these feelings off and carry on as normal, resolution free. But herein lies the rub Ė backsliding is completely normal; in fact itís often inevitable. Again, it all comes down to the pathways, with your new habit trying to replace your old established one; naturally the new one is going to have a tough time! The great thing about understanding backsliding and furthermore understanding it is normal, is now we know that is neednít mark the end of our resolutions.

Two ways to combat backsliding

Now that weíre aware of backsliding, the next step is knowing how to handle it and there are two main ways in doing this:

The first is persistence, simply starting your resolution again if you happen to break it. Although it sounds overly simplistic, the truth is persisting is a sure fire way to get rid of your old pathway and replace it with a new one. By repeating your new habit again and again and again, until the new habit is stronger than the old one. The mistake that we often make is not persisting when we backslide, seeing it as the end. But in persisting we give our new habit a chance to really get a foothold. The thing to be wary of is consistently using backsliding as an excuse to give in to our old habits, because we accept it as the way things are; getting stuck on a seesaw of stopping and starting our new habit. As opposed to using it as an excuse, backsliding should be used to empower us if we slip.

The second way to combat backsliding is telling someone what our resolutions are and getting them to hold us accountable. This person must be someone you trust and most importantly, someone whose opinion you value. Tell this person what your resolutions are, why youíve made it and most importantly to be suitably hard on you if you happen to break them. The great thing about having someone hold you to your resolutions, particularly if itís someone you care about; is that itís often harder to let someone else down than it is to let ourselves down. Knowing that we may disappoint someone else can be the extra incentive we need to stick our resolutions. The important thing in this approach is to be completely honest with the person holding you accountable. In an attempt to avoid having to admit our backsliding, we may be tempted to not be completely honest when asked how weíre doing. But the key is to let them know if youíre struggling, they could give you the extra boost you need when you need it most.

But his year will be different

So this time around, itís going to be different. With an understanding of how your brain works and how it can inadvertently sabotage your efforts, youíre in a position to make a breakthrough where before you would have stopped. Persisting if you happen to break your resolutions is vital, because often itís the only way to make your new habits stick. And seek out someone you trust to keep you on track; perhaps you can return the favour and keep them on track with their resolutions. Have a great year!