New Year Resolutions Usually Do Not Work – Why it’s hard to change
Did you make a New Year resolution to change this year? I bet it was something that would really improve your life like get healthy, quit a bad or annoying habit, or spend more time with family. Sometimes we are able to stick to the new change, sometimes they last a few days, weeks, or months, and other times they never get off the ground. Why is it so hard to change?
Anyone who has dealt with an addiction knows that change is difficult, and we have all heard stories of those who “hit rock bottom” messing up their lives enough to finally change. Who wants to “hit rock bottom” or worse? You might or might say “I am not and addict”, that may be true but a habit is formed in the brain the same way.
So why can’t I do what I say I want to do when I know what is right, I want to do right but I continue in my old ways (Romans 7:15)?
The technology of the last 30 years has greatly expanded research into understanding this problem of the ages. Neurology explains how the brain develops habits as automatic responses. Remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike or shift a car, but once you learned how you never forget. Just as a path through the woods develops as more and more times it is used so it is with our brain.
I will use an example:
Let’s say my job is really stressful and I have found that I am starting to get annoyed with my family when I come home at night. This annoyance starts resulting in frustration and develops into the unhealthy interactions with my family. I find that playing video games really relaxes me and get my mind off the problems at work. So in a noble effort to not be a problem at home I start spending some alone time alone playing a video game. Innocent enough, not hurting anyone and there is the positive, more peace at home. As I continue in this routine, my brain cells actually develops a path that says “stressed from work, play video games, and you will solve the problem”. Over time I develop a path that becomes a “go behavior” to solve a problem. Just like a trail being created in the woods, the path becomes more evident each time until it is a clear trail. Now if I want to get somewhere and I have knowledge of where the path is I need no further instructions, it’s easy. I know how the way to where I want to be, I don’t have to think about it or ask anyone. In this example stress from work is relieved by playing video games the response becomes automatic, the brain knows how to resolve this stress from work; it is automatic, it is a habit.
A seemingly harmless even noble act (you know I jest) to keeping the peace in the family has turned into a lack of contact with my family. I am not dealing with the stress; instead I have learned to avoid it. What I have done is taught my biological brain how to deal with the stress. I hear a great teaching on the importance of spending time with my family and I know that I need to; I even want to so I make a resolution to do just that, less video games more family time. So as I try to turn my focus back on my family, (where I want it) the stress is still there and my brain knows that video games will provide the immediate relief. I try to change the activity maybe set up family night or limit my game time. But the stress is still there and it feels terrible, it makes me angry, frustrated I feel it in my body. The unconscious automatic response that our brain knows will solve this problem (at least temporarily) by playing video games.
The science also shows that the more we try to change the harder it is. So we drop the resolution, usually without even realizing it at least until someone reminds us. This is at the heart of all habits and addictions. It doesn’t matter if the change you seek is to improve relationships, improve health or stop a destructive addiction; simply resolving to change is usually not enough. The inability to change a behavior is only a symptom not the problem. We must change or thinking and develop new neurological pathway. To change are thinking we must first be aware of what we are thinking.
Mark Krynski, M.A.,
Licensed Professional Counselor – State of Texas
Keller, Texas 76248