It’s going to be 2017 in a couple weeks and we all know what that means: an influx of New Year’s Resolutions. They often look a lot like the previous year’s resolutions.

“I’ll stop smoking.”

“I’ll stop obsessing.”

“I’ll stop eating badly.”

“I’ll stop being lazy.”

Stopping, quitting, refraining, avoiding – I’ve got news for you: resolutions like this rarely work.

According to a survey published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, about 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only 8 percent are successful.

Confession: I was the winner of the “Unsuccessful 8%” many years in a row. I struggled to quit smoking, promising myself I’d quit every Monday and every New Year’s Day. I quit smoking so many times that the most excellent quitter became part of my identity. Understanding how my brain works finally helped me kick the habit, but here were some of my very human, very common mistakes over the years:

  • Motivated by Should
  • Propelled By Stopping
  • Fighting against Habit

Motivated by Should

My motivation for quitting was always grounded in “should” versus “want:”

  • I should because my friends and family keep guilting me
  • I should because I smell like an ashtray
  • I should because it’s really cold outside
  • I should because the daily dose of cognitive dissonance feels terrible

Propelled By Stopping

When you focus on stopping or quitting or not doing something that has become an ingrained (overeating, smoking, drinking, overspending, etc.) you fight against your natural, human urge to gain over lose.

Humans are loss-adverse; it hurts us more to lose something than to gain something (e.g. it’s more painful to lose $50 than to gain $50). Therefore, when we frame our bad habits as things we need to lose, we resist with all our might.

Fighting against Habit

To make a resolution stick you have to change. For the brain, change is danger. Change requires neural rewiring and that creates discomfort. Even the prospect of change can create significant psychological discomfort.

The effort to abstain from bad habits compels you to do them more because abstention feels bad. Ergo, you will fight to feel good.

Smoking, laziness, boredom, compulsive eating, overspending – these are all default behaviors based on habitual brain wiring to give you what will make you feel good.

To change we need to create new ways of thinking which trigger new neural pathways, which lead to new default modes of behavior.

With deliberate effort new habits become the default schema for your brain.

Reframe the challenge into something you GAIN.

  • I need to lose weight = I want to gain strength, endurance and flexibility.
  • I need to quit smoking = I want to run three miles without wheezing.
  • I need to stop overspending = I want financial flexibility and freedom.

To learn is to be human.

We begin to learn from the minute we are born.

Therefore, challenging yourself to learn something new flows with the grain of human nature; challenging yourself to lose something you like goes against human nature. Use the word “learn” to counter the effects of the stop language of resolutions. You are not quitting smoking, you are learning how to be a non-smoker.

The Neuroscience Behind Habits

Habits live in the most stubborn of our brain structures: the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia stores useful skills and habits: putting our socks on before our shoes or effortlessly driving our usual route to work.

The basal ganglia can also be a curse: it can cause you to habitually drive home from work along your normal route when you had meant to stop at the grocery store. It contains all of the skills and memories we need to function on a daily basis but could also potentially contribute to keeping you in a rut.

To learn to tie your shoes takes a tremendous amount of initial brainpower, but once learned it consumes very little. As we master these small routines, dopamine rewards us with feelings of pleasure. So we are perpetually rewarded for maintaining our habits, good and bad alike.

When you try to change a habit you activate the prefrontal cortex, a very active part of the brain that helps us focus our thoughts; this requires a lot of conscious mental energy.

The prefrontal cortex is connected to the emotional center of our brain. A firestorm of emotions (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety, etc) is triggered when the brain senses change. When you think, “I want to change this habit” your brain kicks into protection mode and tries to fiercely protect the habits it has grown to love.

The Bottom Line and What to Do About It

Change is brutal and triggers psychological and emotional discomfort. Change takes time, discipline, a plan and some basic TLC (if / when you have a lapse). Recognize that you will naturally want to hold onto your own personal status quo.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit suggests a three-stage process for creating positive habits:

  1. Cue: Since habits are triggered by cues (triggers or signals that tell you to act in a certain way) identify cues that will help you meet your goal. Cues are often centered on location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding an action. For example, if you typically find yourself noshing on junk at your desk every afternoon at 3PM, identify a 3PM cue that helps you learn the new habit (e.g., get up from your desk and go for a 10 minute walk, chug a bottle of water and set a 15 minute timer before you put anything else in your mouth)
  1. Routine: Be very specific about the steps you will take to form the habit. For example, if you want to work on gaining strength, endurance and flexibility, schedule the times you will do your chosen exercise throughout the day and the foods you will be eat that day.
  1. Reward: In order to neutrally embed the new behavior, reward yourself with something related to the habit. Perhaps it’s recognizing the endorphin rush after a workout or the taste of a healthy breakfast following a workout. If you anticipate and associate the reward with the action, your brain eventually craves the reward, further entrenching the habit.

Hopefully this insight will help you if you wake up in February and you haven’t made any progress into your resolutions.

Instead of giving up completely, figure out what you really want to do differently. Frame the goal into something that you are gaining (vs. losing) and learning (vs. stopping).

Respect your brain. It will need some time to incorporate the new behavior into your life.

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Imagine a bear is chasing you. Imagine how frightened you’d be. Your brain would be in overdrive, trying to think of how to stay alive. It would be a harrowing experience, one you would never want to repeat.

Now imagine you are a leader and you own your own business. You’ve just realized in order to stay in business you need to make a radical change to your company, one that doesn’t exactly match the original plan for the business, but is nevertheless crucial to stay alive.

As the leader in the latter scenario you may not think you have anything in common with the person being chased by a bear, but your brain activity would say otherwise, because your brains are reacting in the same exact way.

Our brains have a hard time telling the difference between life-threatening emergencies and the smaller daily stresses. So our natural fight/flight response system kicks into gear when we have to deal with change of some kind.

Change scares people more than death. To drive that point home, 90% of people who have undergone coronary bypass surgery do not change their lifestyle, despite the fact that they have just received the scare of their lives.

So it begs the question: why do we resist change? After all, change is the essence of life. All the cells in your body have changed since you read the last sentence; you will be older by the time you finish reading this article. Change is why you started a business in the first place and how everything that has ever happened has come to be. Yet, once the change becomes the norm we fear any alteration to it. It’s a willful ignorance of how the norm came to be in the first place.

Here’s why we resist:

Change creates psychological discomfort.

Brain analysis technology has proven that change activates the prefrontal cortex, which functions like a control center. It receives data, processes it, and determines actions in accordance with our internal goals. It is also connected to the emotional center of our brain (the amygdala, part of the limbic system). This means that when change is approaching, decisions are often steeped in emotion versus logic.

A firestorm of emotions can happen in our heads (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety) that chemically urge us to fight for the status quo. That fear response can cause impulsive, shortsighted decision-making that impedes performance.

Change is exhausting.

We develop habits that become hard to break. Breaking out of our comfort zone requires energy and perseverance, and it can wear you out. Every decision we make from the moment we wake up chips away at our will power. By the time you arrive to the office you’ve already made so many decisions – from what to wear to what to eat to what you’re going to do when you arrive – that you’re already somewhat depleted. Hence why some leaders (Zuckerberg for instance) wear a uniform (jeans and a hoody): it’s one less decision they have to make.

The good news is creating new habits creates new neural pathways for dopamine receptors. So as the new habits become routine they will make you feel good as you maintain them. The dopamine release will begin to counter the effect of the initial exhaustion from having initiated a new pattern in your work life.

Change triggers bias

There are many biases that get triggered once our brains begin to process the prospect of change, but the two most prevalent, painfully obvious – and damaging – are the sunk cost bias and the status quo bias.

If you’re not familiar with the sunk cost bias, it occurs once we’ve sunk our time, effort, and emotion into an activity. Once we’ve made that commitment we are none too eager to let it go. We’ve sunk the time and effort into completing / perfecting the process and the cost of that is we now have attachment to that particular method or thing. Rather than switch gears our inclination is to keep sinking money and more effort into this process because we’ve made that commitment.

The status quo bias causes us to rely on information that represents the current state or on previous choices that created current conditions. This is done at the expense of considering all available information when making a decision. The status quo bias includes the natural tendency to:

  • Refrain from action altogether because you’d rather do nothing than make a mistake
  • Favor a current routine over new options
  • View current conditions favorably because that provides a measure of calm

Here’s what you can do to change:

Recognize Bias

Know that your brain is probably lying to you and making excuses for not wanting to change. It’s natural. It’s normal. It’s inevitable. Pay attention to any fight/flight responses, fear/anxiety, and investigate what is motivating your reactions.

I also recommend gathering folks around you that do not share your sense of dread and also those who do. Getting folks in a room together to walk through the process of change helps pick away at the defenses and biases that are so strongly built to keep us safe. One way to gain insight into your own resistance is to simply ask yourself (or others) some pointed questions:

  • What are the benefits for keeping things the way they are?
  • How am I limited by keeping things the way they are?
  • What’s the worst & best that can happen if we head in this direction?


How you respond to change has a lot to do with how you frame the scenario. Framing a change as an opportunity rather than a threat will go a long way with your resistance to the change.


Get the necessary rest to think with a level head. Sometimes being stuck or resistant is the result of being worn down. Sometimes you literally don’t have the mental energy or rest to make the necessary changes for success. Get some good R&R and come back to the drawing table with a clear and open mind.


Your business (and your gut) is going to be the first thing that tells you whether change is necessary. If you see a drop in sales, in employee engagement, you are plateauing, or getting sick and tired of something or someone, it might be time to question whether some change is necessary.

When you face the prospect of change do your best to keep an open, fearless mind. Be aware of your habitual behaviors and the brain’s attempt to keep you safe.

And most importantly, remember that the bear chasing you is an illusion…hopefully.

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