Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work -- The Neurology of Change


Right about now, many people are starting to fail at their New Year's resolutions. It happens every year: You were good for a couple weeks, but right about now you're starting to slip with a few cookies, some skipped days at the gym ... Why? Because humans aren't very good at changing, which involves nothing short of rewiring our brains.

A while ago I wrote a story for O, The Oprah Magazine, called "Why is it So Damn Hard to Change," which looks at the neurology of why most New Years resolutions fail, and the ways understanding a bit of science can help people struggling to break old habits and form new ones. Here, below the jump, are some details, and a bit of follow up:

One thing that makes it so freakin' hard to change a habit: dopamine, a chemical in the brain that transmits signals from cell to cell and gets us hooked on everything from food to cigarettes to shopping to sex. I explain this in detail in the article, so I won't rehash it all here, but the basic gist is that we can get hooked on things that come with a reward that triggers a dopamine surge in our brains. Orgasms cause dopamine surges. So does hitting the jackpot when you gamble, winning a race, acing a test, doing cocaine or methamphetamines, smoking, drinking.

The big question I tackled in my story was, How do you get yourself hooked on something that's not inherently pleasurable to you--like living on salads and broccoli or, in my case, exercising? Many people get a natural high from working out. I, however, am not one of them. I hate exercise, but I know I need to do it anyways. So what I wanted to know was, "Isn't there some way to trick the dopamine system? Some way to fool my brain into craving exercise?" The answer, it turns out, is yes.

You can read all about that in the story. Here, I wanted to post a bit of follow up: Many people who've read the story have emailed me asking, Well, did it work? Are you exercising now?

I don't sit around craving exercise like I'd hoped. But the information in that story did change the way I approach working out (like, I actually do it now and I didn't before). In the story I write about how dopamine research led me to realize I should try roller blading for exercise. These days, my exercise of choice is racketball with Mr. Dish. We play several times a week, and I kick his butt probably 80% of the time. I don't win because I'm better at it than him -- not even close -- I win because I have the most absurd handicap of any racketball player in history. It's complicated, but it involves me starting with ten points to his zero (the game only goes to 15), I can let the ball bounce twice before hitting it, Mr. Dish only gets one bounce. Plus he refrains from the crazy trick shots he uses with his more, uh, capable opponents. But we still play hard, the game is usually close, and I can pretty much feel the dopamine rush every time I beat him. Which is why we came up with the handicap in the first place -- to trick my brain's reward center. And so far, it seems to work.

The other day Mr. Dish said, I think we should reduce your handicap, so we took away one of my many advantages, and he threw in a few trick shots. I started losing every game. Suddenly, I wasn't so interested in racketball. I kept playing, but it was a chore -- my energy lagged, I thought about things I had to do back in my office ... then I skipped a day, then another. And I realized, we'd taken away my shot at getting a reward from the exercise, which is (apparently) the only thing keeping my brain into it (lame as that may be). This probably sucks for Mr. Dish since it means he looses a lot of racketball, but he's one of those strange people who actually find exercise to be rewarding all on its own without any added incentive. Those people do exist -- I just don't happen to be one of them ... so I resort to trickery.

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Interesting stuff, I've been basically 're-inventing' myself over the past couple of months after some nasty personal stuff happening and New Year resolutions have formed a big part of that. My main ones were stop smoking (14 year habit), stop biting my nails/fingers (18+ year habit) and run at least one 5k, one 10k and one half marathon. It's tricky but it's all coming together and I have no idea why because I was pretty sure I had about zero willpower beforehand.

I've not thought about smoking yet and not had any cravings, that's two weeks now. I suppose there is a reward there in that I'm starting to get my sense of smell back and I breathe so much easier when running. The nail biting is fine, still chewing the odd finger but my hands are no longer the gruesome spectacle they used to be. I ran my first ever 5k last Saturday and got a much better time than expected (22 mins 45 secs on a hilly course) which made me insanely proud and gave me a huge buzz. I actually can't wait to do the half marathon in April and am now at the gym or out running 6 days a week after not having done any exercise at all since leaving school. I'm not even close to faltering on those and other resolutions and would love to understand why I seem to be able to do it now but couldn't before!

Maybe I'll sign up for that Open University psychology course after all...

This totally explains how Wii Fit must have been designed! You get a little piggy-bank of "exercise credits" based on how long the game you played was, and as you play more you unlock more exercises, yoga poses, and games. It also scores everything you do, mostly based on how fast you were or how controlled you balance was, so you can see your improvement (or not) on a very short time scale (rather than, have I lost those 10lbs yet?).

Then, to apply the "stick" half of "carrot and the stick", it tells you how long it has been since you last took the fitness test, and is sad if it doesn't see you for a few days.

The little bugger is in my brain, but I will beat those darn hula-hoops!

By JustaTech (not verified) on 14 Jan 2009 #permalink

My daughter said I'd never use a Wii Fit if I got one. I explained that since I don't get any endorphins from exercising, the need to beat the current best score, plus the carrots and sticks noted above, would do the trick.

I have to be careful to set a time to stop or I'm late to my next appointment. "Just one more try to beat the slalom time!"

Thanks for helping me understand why.

By nancy Boutin (not verified) on 14 Jan 2009 #permalink

@JustaTech: I totally agree ... I've been thinking I should tri a Wii or DanceDance Revolution ... both definitely seem to tap into the dopamine thing.

I loved this post and the article for Oprah. I have literally done the "I couldn't possibly exercise without music and new exercise clothes" bit myself. I too have been working on my New Year's resolutions, bearing in mind the brain restructuring required! I decided that instead of trying implement them all on Jan 1, I should start one at a time... right now I'm on eating healthy. When I get that down, we'll try some exercise.

The funniest thing was, today someone brought in cookies and pie for a birthday at work. When the craving hit but my internal monologue, instead of going "COOOKIES!!!" like usual it screamed "DOPAMINE!!!!" Unfortunately this new-found self-awareness did not prevent me from devouring several of them. But the veggies for lunch will make up for it...right?

Aquiring new habits seems relatively easy - just a matter of making the activity pleasurable. But breaking old habits is a different matter, because it's not easy to find a way to get pleasure from not doing something.