We are so easily invigorated by the emotional zeal of a new year’s resolution.
But, quicker than we'd like, that zeal transforms into overwhelm. The lofty ambitions for 2019 are delayed and dropped (in some cases, by mid-January!).
This is where an understanding of the science of human attention can have significant explanatory and prescriptive . What is so hard about keeping a resolution? Is it laziness? The wrong goal setting program?
Why our resolutions fail
The truth has more to do with the direction of our focus. Resolutions themselves tend to focus on outcomes, but achieving them requires focus on process. The first is pleasurable: attention on a better, future reality. The second is painful: attention that requires significant energy resources.
At this point in our attempt to change behavior in some important way, we run into a big roadblock based on how our brains are wired. Here it is: our past habits actually serve as an energy-saving mechanism for present attention.
You’ve likely heard the maxim: neurons that fire together, wire together. That’s how habits work. The attention energy that these habits save is preserved in case of emergency.
It’s a survival instinct, and it’s powerful.
How to avoid resolution burnout
To overcome our survival instincts, and turn our attention successfully toward the things that require extra energy, we have to carefully consider our approach. Here are three important methods to consider as you attempt to keep your resolutions alive in 2019.
Reassess. Remember that human attention is a powerful but slow resource. Our newest goals tend to ignore human limits. If we want to run a marathon, that likely means a full day per week will be lost to an activity that isn’t a habit, jammed into an already crowded schedule.
When we want to change how a piece of software works, we update the code and click “compile”. That is not how our brains work. Accept that it will take time and many imperfect attempts before change comes.
Despite what the self-help industry preaches, remember that you are not a machine.
Release. Let go of the things you feel you’re “supposed” to do because it’s the New Year, and instead focus on what you actually want to do. What you are drawn toward.
This is usually an effect of social attention—the communities we identify with emphasize things that we feel we “should” lend a certain level of importance.
Losing weight, working more (or less), changing our eating habits … there are many common resolutions that our immediate communities prioritize that may not actually be that important to us deep down.
If you want resolutions that really stick, then release the obligations and evaluate your own approach.
Align. If you haven't already, spend some time thinking about larger, foundational values that can connect you more fully to any specific resolutions you choose to pursue. This requires a different kind of attention that rarely gets talked about in business circles.
It’s easy to get caught up in practicals and implementation, and lose sight of the foundational values that those particulars are intending to support.
For example, your resolutions might be to lose 10 pounds and spend less time reading arguments on social media. But note that both of those could be connected to a more foundational value of “holistic health”, which can strengthen your connection to both goals.
Alignment is an area where you would do well to share your goals and resolutions with others in your communities—both at home and at the office. We are social creatures, and nothing we do happens in a vacuum.
Take this opportunity to communicate your values and goals to your immediate connections, and discover theirs.
This is where you’ll be most likely to find overlap with the people that truly matter. And pursuing goals together with people that matter is perhaps the most effective method to resolution success.