New Year, New Me! But it's February?
Written by Rebecca Perrott
As a new year comes around one can’t help but place an array of declarations upon themselves to eat healthier, exercise more frequently, or work harder than ever before. The mantra of ‘new year, new me’ echoes from all four corners of the world. This global phenomenon occurs as we realize that our previously set goals were dismally reached. Yet come January first, our aspirations get reworded and a new – yet familiar – sense of momentum crescendos.
New Year’s Resolutions
New Year’s resolutions have been around for centuries, dating all the way back to Ancient Babylonian and Roman times. Yes, even the gladiators started the year off saying “This year I’m going to drink less wine”. The key idea behind these resolutions - as it was many years ago - is self-improvement. We reflect on our past and make promises or sacrifices towards a better future. But as I’m sure we are all well aware, change is hard. Most of us are creatures of habit, thriving off routine. While we may not always admit it, making space in these routines for new rituals or habits is tough. Instead of implementing lifestyle changes when we need them most, many of us wait for that fictitious ‘perfect moment’ to start fresh, which often ends up being the New Year. But why do we delay these moments of change? The fresh start effect may provide an explanation.
The Fresh Start Effect
January calls for reflection and prompts change. New year’s resolutions are frequently made to break pre-existing habits, with the most popular resolutions typically involving physical health, eating habits and weight loss - “I will eat less chocolate, I will eat less chocolate”. Although our goals may seem achievable, we often oversimplify how challenging it can be to implement a change in behaviour. To make it a little easier, people often use something called a temporal landmark. A temporal landmark is a socially accepted significant date that allows us to separate our past and future selves. These landmarks - be it New Year’s Eve, a birthday or the start of a new week help us ‘wipe the slate clean’.
Temporal landmarks help us segregate life and past imperfections into distinct and previous mental accounting periods, allowing for focus on the bigger picture. We are wired to compare our current selves to the past and reflect on what we want for the future. Although our past, present and future selves are all connected, they form separate parts of our identity. Who we were, who we are and who we want to be. Both significant life changes (a new job) or negligible ones (a haircut) connect our present and past selves. Noting changes through the use of a temporal landmark provides motivation for self-improvement. Past research indicates that big picture or high-level thinking is important for goal motivation. For example, on a milestone birthday we may judge our success on overall achievements, thinking broadly as opposed to honing in on details of our daily life. So what is the link between the goals we set for ourselves and our brain's capacity to achieve them?
Goals and the brain
It is not only our internal motivation (determination, intention, and volition) or desire to make a change to our behaviour that allows us to set and reach for our goals. Cognitive processes such as working memory capacity, inhibitory control, planning, and attentional focus are all executive functions that are critical to adapt goals and consistently strive for updated standards.
Let’s talk about executive function:
Executive function involves higher-level cognitive thinking and the capacity to promote crucial human functioning such as shifting focus, acquiring new information and avoiding information that may be distracting or irrelevant. Let’s take a look at the three main characteristics of executive function.
The Three Main Characteristics of Executive Function
How much effort do we put into our goals? Our brains allocates cognitive resources to tasks based on the level of mental work required to complete them. For executive function to be useful tasks need to be effortful i.e., feel difficult and be completed in a sequential manner.
Executive function takes informed effort, thus it requires conscious attention and awareness. Brain regions such as the lateral prefrontal and parietal cortices in particular, allow us to retain information and sift through stored content to disclose what is task-relevant. Moreover, cognitive processes and neural resources allow for focus and attention redirection. This all contributes to our openness to new ideas and perspectives when working towards and setting new goals.
3. Novel tasks
Our brain’s executive function specializes in novel tasks. The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning complex behaviour, decision making, expression and social behaviour. Simply put, our brain has the ability to direct thought into action; particularly action that is new or novel. Once our prefrontal cortex puts thought into motion we are able to form new habit loops and when a behaviour is no longer novel, the need for consciousness becomes less important (did someone say autopilot?)
So, what can we take from this? Due to the sequential nature of executive function, effort may result in an opportunity cost that may hinder our goals. In other words if a task is too challenging and effortful - we will hit our first obstacle in achieving our goals. This is where our priorities come into play. By prioritizing our goals, the effort we put into each task can be managed. Thus, the opportunity cost of not getting that extra glass of wine or chocolate after dinner may feel obsolete. I predict a Google Search trend for SMART goals coming along.
Why wait for the new year?
We are 33 days into the new year and our goals may already be feeling unattainable. However, this shouldn’t be discouraging as we have 300+ days to get it right.
You can start right where you are, right now, because of two things. Firstly, you have the power to deem any moment a temporal landmark. Any moment can be your first of January or Monday morning. Secondly, your brain has the most incredible ability to adapt and optimize its limited resources. Even when it feels like a habit is impossible to break, new pathways can be formed. This is what we call Neuroplasticity- but we’ll get into that topic in the near future.
So as you start “fresh” in February, remember… start wherever you are and set realistic goals, prioritizing them as you go.
Berkman, E. 2018. The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change. Consult Psychol J. 2018 March ; 70(1): 28–44. doi:10.1037/cpb0000094
Dai, H., Milkman, K.L. & Riis, J. 2014. The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior. Management Science. http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2014.1901
Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G & Rozental A. 2020. A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0234097. https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097
Pruitt, S. 2020. The History of New Year’s Resolutions. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-new-years-resolutions