According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, just 8% of people keep their New Year’s resolutions. Weight loss and fitness goals rank in the top ten list; others include eating healthier, learning a new language or skill, changing jobs, quitting smoking, traveling to a new destination or getting out of debt. Why do so few people accomplish their goals despite their best intentions?
Will power is fleeting: Many of us rely on will power to accomplish changes in lifestyle and behavior. The problem with will power is that it requires too much focus and energy to be sustainable as a source for change. The truth is, no matter how self-disciplined we might strive to be, we grow weary of constantly being vigilant in an area of challenge for us. When we are tired or stressed, we resort to old coping patterns and quickly “break” our resolutions.
Neurobiology: Repeated patterns of behavior literally create neural pathways in the brain. As Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist puts it: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Although the brain can be re-wired, it takes a lot of experiences with a new behavior pattern to achieve this change.
Emotional States: Many of the habits we are trying to break were formed as coping mechanisms for unpleasant emotions. When we felt anxious, afraid or insecure, we turned to certain behaviors like smoking or eating foods we weren’t physically hungry for to make us feel better. Although these behaviors never addressed the core issue behind the bad feelings, they functioned to distract or mask our distress effectively enough that we kept turning to them even when the coping mechanisms began causing problems of their own, interfering with work or health or relationships.
So how does true change occur in a lasting fashion?
Self-control: The Bible calls self-control “a fruit of the spirit” meaning we can access it when we stop living out of the flesh using will power and access our spiritual power in God. When we seek character change, rather than behavior change, we become different instead of just acting different. C.S. Lewis writes, “wouldn’t you rather be kind, than just act that way?”
New wiring: New wiring in the brain occurs when we pursue growth instead of avoiding failure. Fear avoids making a negative mistake, while faith pursues a positive goal. When I identified a bad habit of interrupting people, instead of trying to stop doing that, I strove to become a better listener. Along the way I identified a higher motivation to care more deeply for people, which made me want to listen better and understand more fully. Not interrupting was replaced with a desire to hear and understand. My default wiring to jump in with my own thoughts was replaced with a wiring to listen.
Responding rather than reacting: The more comfortable we become with creating space for our emotions instead of either shutting them down or letting them dictate our reactions, the less we require coping mechanisms to deal with them. When we stop fearing fear, or anxiety, and instead see these emotional states as symptoms or indicators of a deeper problem, we can ask questions like, “What is my fear about? What is my mind, or body, or heart trying to tell me about what is happening right now?” Instead of self-medicating with a substance, or food, or technology, we can explore our emotional state and respond, rather than react to our situation.
Practicing these skills won’t guarantee that you will keep all of your resolutions this year. Perhaps you will decide that instead of resolutions, you will make small, sustainable, incremental lifestyle changes that you will be surprised to find yourself still living out at the end of 2016?