And How to Keep Them! (AKA Happy New Year!)
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While the impact of the statement resounds, the particular metaphysics fail. With all the good intentions, in which discarded resolutions are included, it would seem that the road to hell would be far longer than is threatened. It is, rather, along the path to heaven where abandoned resolutions accumulate. After all, that long, hopeful, trajectory upward is where one shoulders a resolution, adjusts one’s step to the heft of commitment, and begins to climb. Along that course, most probably beyond the grassy slopes and among the rock face of toe holds, the weight of resolutions seem an imbalance—or a impossibility. They are then discarded where they roll down to a comfortable repose. Though now a climber cannot press onward. One must shimmy back down, like a modern-day Sisyphus, to find a different boulder to shoulder before attempting once again.
Thus innumerable diets, exercise regimens, half-finished novels, single tracks of a great album, nicotine patches, swear jars, and sobriety chips accrete along any path upward. Some lie there with the promise to be picked up again while others are forgotten entirely and left to decompose to the hope from which they emerged. However, climbers rarely abandon the slope entirely, often searching for a more manageable boulder before striking from base camp.
Roughly 80% of resolutions fail before the end of February, and an additional 12% don’t make it through the year. This leaves a mere 8% who stick with their resolutions until the next new year. Climbers attempting Mt. Everest’s summit succeed nearly 61% of their forays — or 7.5 times as often. This begs the question of why creating lasting change, despite determination and fervent intention, is so difficult. And it opens the discussion of what can be done to reach these well-intended goals.
Many claim that the high rate of failure is due in part to setting unrealistic goals, though others have shown great strides are possible. Others lose sight of the reason behind the goal, or begin with a specific result to achieve and yet lack an equally specific process. Imagine a climber forgetting about reaching the peak and begin wandering the slopes, or to strike out without a plotted trail upward. Neither would journey far. While these contribute to a sense of futility and frustration, the biggest reason resolutions are not kept and change is not made is because of a mis-aligned reward loop.
For many the setting of a resolution is a formal event. It is announced and celebrated by one’s peers. Lists of resolutions garner hundreds of millions of likes and retweets on social media. This feels great. The amount of accolades for a completed goal is fewer than the pronouncement of the same, and positive impressions for the steps in-between start and finish are rare indeed—if existing at all. If this has any correlation to the rewards we receive in real life, the problem is worse than previously imagined.
If change is to become lasting, it is not the result of one final step into newness, but the habitual modification of behavior all along the way. Yet no reward is offered there. If change is to become part of daily life, it must become habitual. And habitual behavior is the result of a shift in habit, not in the achievement of a goal. Our brains conceive the two differently.
Habits are substantiated by a completed reward loop: a behavior is cued, a routine is engaged, and a reward is offered. This links neural connections between the cue and the reward. In the setting of resolutions, the majority of the reward is in the establishment of intention. This is what the brain will return to in order to receive its reward rather than the routine. If there is no reward loop being completed for the day-to-day of behavior, there is no signal to the brain to reinforce change.
Simply linking a reward to the process of change rather than the result will dramatically alter the brain’s neural network. It will soon seek the behavior which garners rewards. And, the best part is, controlling the reward loop is entirely possible and entirely up to you.
Changing your behavior is as easy as celebrating the process of change. Instead of looking at the scale everyday and feeling the frustration of not losing the weight you wanted, celebrate one day of eating healthy. Instead of waiting for a manuscript to be printed with “The End” typed neatly in white space, celebrate every day of writing. Instead of seeing each craving as a struggle and proof of addiction, celebrate every smoke break not taken. Look yourself in the mirror and congratulate yourself for working on your new song regardless of completion, rejoice in spending time making art, with family, exercising, reading, or whatever step you have taken toward your goal.
That is all it takes. This one shift will notably increase your success and make your progress more rewarding along the way. Imagine if each climber on Everest’s snowy slopes told themselves that they weren’t there yet, that it was still so far, that many have given up. Now imagine that instead of reminding themselves how much farther it was to the top, one saw each step upward as a victory. If small, process-oriented goals are set, achieved, and rewarded, achieving larger goals is inevitable. And it will seem easier and more sought after (thanks, habit loop). After all, no one climbs a mountain all at once. It is only done by taking one step after another after another after another . . .
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To your story,