01/04/2013 12:12 EST | Updated 03/06/2013 05:12 EST

How to Be One of the 12% Who Keep Their Resolutions

new year resolution marked in a ...

Happy New Year!

2013 is off to a great start and many (about half) of us have made a New Year's resolution. Unfortunately, according to researcher and psychologist Richard Wiseman, 88 per cent of us will fail. We all start with the best intentions, so why is it that so many of us end up disappointed and disillusioned? Let's take a look at the science behind resolutions and find out what it will take to be one of the 12 per cent who keep them!

Willpower and Your Brain:

There is one thing you will absolutely require to keep your resolution: WILLPOWER! Your brain processes willpower in your pre-frontal cortex (right behind your forehead). This area is also responsible for allowing you to stay focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract tasks. An experiment out of Stanford University was performed to study how this area of the brain responds to temptation when having to do a challenging or a non-challenging task:

A group of undergraduate students were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember. The other was given a seven-digit number to remember. Then, after a short walk through the hall, they were offered the choice between two snacks: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. What's most surprising: The students with seven-digit numbers to remember were twice as likely to pick the slice of chocolate compared to the students with the two-digits.

Why does this happen? Professor Shiv, one of the lead researchers on this experiment says that "those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain -- they were a 'cognitive load' -- making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert." Therefore, the more focussed your pre-frontal cortex on a single task, the easier it is to train your willpower.

Did you see that word I used? TRAIN! Willpower and your brain are like any other muscles and they need to be trained. Do not expect to have this ability pop up overnight!


Commonly Broken New Year's Resolutions

The Top 3 New Year's Resolutions:

1. Lose Weight

2. Quit Smoking

3. Eat Healthier

Pretty abstract ideas, right?

If you want your resolution to stick, you need to think less in terms of ideals and more in terms of HABITS. For example, if you want to lose weight, change your resolution to "I will take the stairs up to my ninth floor apartment every day after work." If you want to eat healthier, try "I will swap out my daily morning bagel for a bowl of fruit and yogourt" instead. You get the idea -- these habits are manageable and defined, it is this strategy that those 12 per cent of resolution-keepers employ to keep them on track.

The 3 Steps to Success:

1. Pick only ONE resolution

Just like the Stanford University study explained, trying to focus on more than one New Year's resolution can lead to a cognitive overload, which can be very difficult for your brain to handle. Pick the one that is most important to you, otherwise you may default to the "chocolate cake" whenever you have a choice!

2. Tell others and put it in writing

In 2007, Evans performed a study that found a very strong correlation between increased social support and lowing blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol hormone levels. I can hear you know: "What does this have to do with my resolution!?"

It has been shown that the people around you can have a significant impact on your behaviour. If you tell your close friends, family, coworkers about a new habit you are creating for yourself, you will be much more likely to stick to it.

Putting things in writing also increase your likelihood of success. Write down your goals and read them often. Not only will it help with sticking to your habits, but research has also shown that writing down your goals increases overall happiness. Give it a try!

3. Believe in yourself

In a study out of Scranton University in 2002, a remarkable discovery was made: people who really want to succeed are no more likely to stick to a New Year's resolution than anyone else! Even an overwhelming desire to change just wasn't enough to enforce a meaningful and long-lasting habit. However, it was shown that those who kept their resolutions shared certain habits. They:

  • Believed that they were able to change
  • Believed it was possible to keep the change for a long period of time
  • Tried to stay as positive as possible
  • Avoided temptations and distractions
  • Encouraged themselves when they made progress in the right direction

Compare these behaviours to those who gave up on their resolution in the first month. These resolution-quitters:

  • Blamed themselves any time they fell off-course
  • Spent time wishing things were different
  • Kept asking themselves how they were feeling

A little bit of willpower and positivity can make you one of the successful 12 per cent!

Do you have a New Year's resolution? What habits will you change in 2013?