Everyone is talking about New Year’s resolutions – do you make them or have you given up making them because it just annoys you more that you don’t or can’t follow through?
The problem with making a quick resolution in your head on foot of a sudden motivation is that those impulses are fleeting and often triggered by an external stimulus, e.g. you are aware that you have eaten more sugar than you should have over the holidays and now you are bombarded with images of shiny fit muscular models in summer clothes and for a brief moment you think ‘I’d like to be that fit and toned’.
Motivation is quite distinct from commitment. Motivation is fleeting. You may be motivated to set your alarm earlier tomorrow with the intention of going out running ‘in the brisk air before everyone else is up’ (sounds nice doesn’t it?!), whereas commitment is a more steady driver. Commitment is what will actually get you to get out of your warm bed and sleepy stupor to put on your track shoes and leave the house. Commitment is what makes you power through obstacles and distractions, especially when you can’t yet see the goal and have no idea when you will reach it.
Motivation gets you started. Commitment keeps you going.
So what is required to cement a motivation into a bedrock of commitment so that you actually can make meaningful changes, not just on 1st January but on any day of the year?
Neuroscience shows us the way.
1) Our limbic system must be ‘roped in’ in order for people to successfully break old behaviours and establish new habits. As Daniel Goleman perfectly describes, the pre-frontal cortex circuits “harbor our positive feelings, quietly bringing them to mind over and over as we struggle towards a goal. Pleasant thoughts thereby operate as a sort of cheering section, urging us on over the long haul….Passion for [what we do] at the brain level, means that circuits linked to the left pre-frontal cortex pump out a fairly steady stream of good feeling as we do our work”. So if we align our goals with what is important to us, we will be continuously compelled to keep going, even when the process is difficult. Crucially, the left pre-frontal cortex helps with this too. It quietens feelings of frustration that might tempt us to give in. Pre-frontal cortex – A.K.A. your B.F.F.!
2) A ‘new and improved’ life doesn’t happen overnight so we must be patient with ourselves. We can’t type our goal into a tweet of 140 characters and press Send for it to take instant effect! Change takes time because the emotional centres of the brain (such as the basal ganglia) must be engaged. The process of changing old undesirable habits is one that can be taught, but must be practised habitually in order for new neural pathways to be created and strengthened so that a new preferred habit becomes the automatic default response. This is achieved by actively and purposefully engaging the pre-frontal cortex. Coaching (self-coaching or through one to one sessions with a coach), practice, self-awareness and reflection will all support these efforts.
3) You need to set your goals. Personal Learning Goals set by individuals have been shown to lead to greater improvement than performance goals set someone else. Setting goals that matter takes a person from merely thinking about change to taking actions that prepare for the change. A heightened awareness of the importance of this will help you to resist the efforts of the onslaught of manipulative marketing that’s on the way in the New Year.
So here’s the nub of it – ‘setting goals that matter’ is key to successful change. Knowing your purpose in life – really knowing it in your gut – is a well-signposted route for you to follow. Once you know deep in your heart what it is that is most important to you, everything that is thrown into your in-tray of tasks each day is filtered through that prism.
It either passes or it doesn’t. You either respond in a way that suits someone else, or you serve your purpose.
Which of these will make you feel more fulfilled as you go through the next 12 months?