New Year’s resolution: quit smoking… oh, and keep New Year’s resolutions,’ says Bridget Jones, on 1 January, cigarette in hand. After weeks of Christmas indulgence, most of us will seize the blank page of New Year’s Day as an opportunity to rewrite our personal narratives. Could 2020 be an annus mirabilis, in which we become healthier, wealthier and wiser? Looking at the statistics, it doesn’t seem likely; surveys suggest that fewer than 10 per cent of the vows we make to ourselves on the first day of the year have been kept by the year’s end, and about 25 per cent of us fail within two weeks. Yet still, year after year, like Bridget, we make these promises without really knowing how to fulfil them, hoping that the fresh start on the first of January will magically change us into the people we wish to be.
Indeed, when making resolutions, there is a temptation to go for a total life overhaul, an approach that Elizabeth Day, the host of the podcast How to Fail, strongly discourages. “In placing expectations so high, you set yourself up for feeling like a failure if you don’t meet them,” she says. Dr Tara Swart, the neuroscientist, leadership coach and author of The Source, recommends choosing four areas that you’d like to improve on during the year, and addressing them one by one. “The brain naturally filters out longerterm goals, the things that aren’t essential for us to survive for now,” she explains. If you focus intently on one objective for three months, such as visiting the gym, there is a much better chance that you will stick with it. This creates what Swart describes as a ‘knock-on effect’ to the system. “If you work on your health and fitness, then it improves your brain power,” she says. A study conducted in Sydney illustrates this idea: scientists assigned volunteers to a two-month exercise programme; those who kept it up also reported drinking less, curbing their spending and working more efficiently. Nathalie Schyllert, the CEO of the wellness company Bodyism, agrees that smaller steps are more likely to lead to more permanent change. “If you stop everything all of a sudden – say, going completely gluten-free, or vegan, or losing five kilos in a month – it’s too extreme to be able to stick to,” she says.
The nub of the problem, according to Swart, is our habit of thinking of resolutions as a list of things we ‘should’ be doing but aren’t. Our brains respond best to abstract images, as opposed to logical to-do lists, so making a collage of inspiring pictures (otherwise known as an ‘action board’) is a more effective motivational tool. “Bypassing words and going for visual imagery sidesteps the logical centres of your brain and imprints on your subconsciousness,” Swart explains. Creating your own board is simple: first, pick up a variety of magazines that touch on all aspects of your life, from finance to fitness, fashion and travel. Then select pictures that you feel represent what you want to achieve, as well as those that stir you emotionally, to cut out and paste onto it. Be honest and bold with your choices.
Swart suggests putting your most important ambition in the centre of the board and constellating the rest around it, fanning them out in order of priority. The way you display the images can act as a metaphor for your brain to recognise, she says. “It may be that you want the arrangement to be really full because you want a full life; or it may be that you need some more space.” Alternatively, you could separate your collage into different sections – career, health and family, for example. Lastly, leave your action board somewhere you will see it regularly, such as beside your bed, to align your conscious brain with your deep subconscious. The physical act of producing a board by hand is incredibly therapeutic, and there is concrete neuro- scientific reasoning behind its efficacy.
While the majority of New Year’s resolutions highlight what we consider to be our failures, the most important aspect for transformation is that it be driven by positive thinking. Though we cannot undo the negative thoughts we already have about ourselves, we can replace them with great, positive affirmations.
“We all have a certain nagging doubt that crops up in our mind, and if you’re able to identify what that is, you can create a mantra to oppose it,” Swart explains. “If you think, ‘I’d never be able to successfully run my own business,’ instead say, ‘I’m going to be a successful business owner.’ Every time you have that thought, immediately replace it with the mantra.”
The final question is: why bother to wait until 1 January to make changes? According to Swart, the milestone of a new year does help us to hold ourselves accountable, “and accountability is a vital part of reaching your goals”. However, remember to be kind to yourself if you stumble. In Elizabeth Day’s view, “the fact that you’ve failed will have taught you something necessary. Perhaps setting that goal was too much, so try it in a more manageable way.” And remind yourself that will-power is not an inborn trait of the blessed few, but a skill that requires practice.
From Harper's BAZAAR Arabia's January 2020 Issue