Rebecca S. Heiss Ph.D.

Psych-illogical

Why Your Biology Will Make You Fail Your Resolutions

Start with your stories.

Posted Dec 29, 2018

Banalities / flickr
February 1, 2019.
Source: Banalities / flickr

We all do it. We start off the new year with some positive new goals, full of promise and good intentions. And by February? Yeah, you know the story.

Why do we continue to repeat this cycle? Simple — it’s built into our very biology.

All of biology regulates itself the same. There is a set point, some stable line you can draw that represents “normal.” For body temperature, it’s 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, resting heart rate somewhere around 50-60 beats per minute, amount of sleep needed approximately 8 hours. All of your life, you fluctuate around those norms, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but ultimately the average stays consistent. Why?

Your biology understands these as necessary and normal patterns that have allowed you to survive. If you get too far outside of those norms, it will automatically do everything it can to signal discomfort and bring you back to the homeostatic norm (just think about how painful it was the last time you elevated your heart rate and tried to maintain it for any length of time).

Your brain loves these patterns. It thrives by relying on this information to stay safe and consistent. In other words, if your behaviors have been working for this long to keep you alive and “well,” there’s nothing, according to your subconscious brain, that needs changing.

While consciously you might disagree (and perhaps even your doctor or spouse might also have opinions about your need to shed a few pounds in the new year), your subconscious story is the default text on which your brain will operate. In order to change, you’ll have to write a new story. How do those stories get written in the first place?

Traditionally, your stories are written such that your experiences drive your beliefs, which in turn produce your actions and ultimately the results you achieve. To change your results, you have to interrupt this flow where you have the most influence.

Most of us do all we can to change the base of this pyramid. We struggle to change things we can’t control, like our experiences. We expect that we will go to the gym and have this glorious experience of euphoria. We envision the montage from the Rocky movie, and believe that showing up at the gym at 5 a.m. will make us feel amazing. In reality, we show up, and the gym is cold and dark. We don’t experience it as we want to. We might be able to hold onto the belief for a while that we really love this dark place of torture, but sooner rather than later, this belief fades to match our experience. Our results are what we’d expect. We are focusing on the wrong part of the story.

RyanMcGuire / Pixabay
Our experiences don't always match our expectations
Source: RyanMcGuire / Pixabay

It’s extraordinarily difficult to control our experiences that feed our beliefs. This is the equivalent of trying to change the result of an increased heart rate by avoiding scary circumstances. Eventually, we are going to be thrust into an experience that scares us (a near miss on the highway, or a dog barking viciously as you walk along the sidewalk), and the result will be an increased heart rate. Instead, we should be focusing on the one part of this whole sequence over which we do have some control...

Our actions

What happens when we remove “actions” from the experiences-->belief-->actions-->results sequence by consciously controlling them? When we make our actions conscious by paying attention to them, acknowledging them, and then choosing to embrace or dismiss them, we give ourselves the power to not only control the results of our behaviors, but also to influence our beliefs and experiences. Take the example of a scary experience. When we take action to recognize the automatically generated emotion of fear and decide whether or not it is needed in that moment, we can further control how our body responds (in this moment and the next time it occurs). Your heart will likely begin to pound automatically, but you can choose to take action by controlling what you can — your breath. When you slow your breath, this signals to the rest of your body that the response you’re having is unnecessary and will in turn slow your heart.

So how will any of this help you to keep those New Year’s resolutions? Simple. You have to break out of that homeostatic cycle to write a new story. That means changing your story at the point of your actions. While all of your experiences and beliefs will fight against you, if you want different results, your actions have to fit the new norm.

When you change the thermostat from 70 to 40, you’ll undoubtedly have a new experience and new beliefs as well. But what actions are you going to take that will support the new level of cold? What will keep you from resetting it right back to 70 the second you feel a little uncomfortable?

Map out your actions. Consciously embrace your experience and question the beliefs that will follow any of the major changes you are hoping to make this new year.

Changing your subconscious story isn’t easy, but with commitment to new actions, we might all begin to better shift our results.