New Year Resolutions and a String of Cooked Spaghetti

Ready to tackle those New Year's resolutions? Learn how to stick to your goals with solid advice in this episode.

It's that time of the year again! With tiny traces of remorse lingering for having wildly indulged over the Festive Season and a hint of embarrassment at your lack of restraint, having done things you normally wouldn't want to have done, have you already decided on your New Year's resolutions? Shell-shocked from your year-end break, you slowly emerge from this festive haze as part of your brain slowly begins to thaw from its dormant holiday hibernation. As sensibility reawakens, you start to think rationally again, and in the sober light of the New Year, with the next twelve months stretched out in front of you like a blank sheet of writing paper, you repentantly and understandably hack together a handful of ground-rules to utilise this moment of motivation to your betterment and to the advantage of others around you. This is how we conceive a plethora of New Year's resolutions. But it is well-known that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I have some solid advice to share in this episode to help you manage your resolutions. I suspect that you would like to succeed, so let me tell you how.


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A study by Richard Wiseman from the University of Bristol showed that more than four-out-of-five of those who set New Year resolutions fail, even though half of them were confident of success at the beginning. You might sadly find yourself relating to this statistic as one of the four who failed, no matter how good your intentions were.

Setting New Year's Resolutions is a tradition, mostly found in the West. It's a self-promise to improve in some way, agreeing to act differently or to assist others in accomplishing something worthwhile. But the tradition's history dates to the Babylonians who made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay back their debts. In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus is the god of beginnings and endings. He is depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and the past. The Romans began each year by making promises to him, hoping that he would guide them through the transition into the new year. In Medieval times, knights, at the end of the Christmas season each year, reaffirmed their commitment to chivalry and many Christians, at watchnight services, prepare for the year ahead by praying and making resolutions. This tradition has many other religious parallels too. During Judaism's New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the High Holidays and culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), one is to reflect upon one's wrongdoings over the year and both seek and offer forgiveness. People act similarly during the Christian liturgical season of Lent, although the motive behind this holiday is more of sacrifice than of responsibility. In fact, the practice of New Year's resolutions came, in part, from the Lenten sacrifices themselves. The concept, regardless of creed, is to annually reflect upon self-improvement.

Here's a list of common resolution categories that you might have considered implementing in your own life: To improve your physical and mental well-being; to get control of your finances by improving your education and career; to see yourself in a more positive way; to volunteer to help others; to be more spiritual; and if you are one of my younger listeners, your resolution might be to settle down and spend less time on social media.

These are some of the broad resolution categories but each one needs to have some specific actions if you are to find self-improvement. Some of these actions are: to eat healthy food, lose weight, exercise more, drink less alcohol and quit smoking. You might like to stop biting your nails or to get rid of old, redundant bad habits. Here are a few specific actions that lead to self-betterment: to think positively, laugh more often and to be less uptight so that you can enjoy life more. Specific actions to take control of your finances could be: to do what you can to quickly get out of debt or to save some money and to use it to make small investments towards your future. You might be thinking of performing better at your current job or even getting a better one. Is setting up your own business on your list of New Year's Resolutions? To do that, you might need to obtain better grades, get a better education, learn something new, study often, read more books and to improve your talents in general. What about becoming more organised to resolve to reduce your stress, to be less grumpy, to better manage your time and to be more independent. How about making self-promises to watch less television, play fewer video games and to spend less time on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? Are you one of many who resolve to volunteer your resources to help others by cultivating a civic virtue, to give to charity or to work for an organisation on a charitable, part-time basis? Your New Year's Resolution might be to foster closer relationships with the ones you love, particularly with your romantic partner. This is far from an exhaustive list, so, lastly for now, maybe you've resolved to get closer to God by being more spiritual.

These undertakings are meaningful and motivated by good intentions, so why do four out of five who set New Year resolutions fail? Richard Wiseman found that men improved their chances of succeeding by setting measurable goals ("I'll lose 1 to 1½ kg a week"); and women succeeded more when they made their goals public and thereby got support from their friends. But sticking to your resolutions can be a tad more complex.

There are three strategic things you need to bear in mind when choosing your New Year's Resolution: (1) is what I'm resolving to achieve, believable? There's no point trying to aim for a body weight less than the weight of your bones. (2) Is your goal achievable? Like resolving to walk upon the surface of the Moon. And, (3) is your goal sustainable? "I will never touch another cigarette until the day I die."

Charles Duhigg is an American journalist and non-fiction author. He is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of two books on habits and productivity. He collated scientific research about habits and wrote an interesting book on how habits form and what we can do to break them. Since most of our New Year's Resolutions are attempts at breaking unwanted habits, I thought Duhigg's propositions are worth sharing.

This is where the spaghetti comes in: Try pushing a piece of cooked spaghetti across your plate and you'll soon notice how impossible it is. It is as if the spaghetti has a mind of its own and goes where it wants to go and not where you intend it to be. Breaking habits are easy when you get the method right otherwise, it's like pushing spaghetti. Try pulling a piece of cooked spaghetti and you'll have no trouble doing it at all.

[This metaphor reminds me so much of some shopping trollies that just refuse to travel in straight lines — but let's not go there because the idea of it just makes me fret. Oh, and another bit of useless trivia: Have you ever wondered where the word spaghetti comes from? The word spaghetti is the plural form of the Italian word spaghetto which is the diminutive form of the word spago, meaning thin rope. The very original forms of the word came from the late Latin word, spacus, meaning twine. The Romans borrowed this from the Greek word sphákos, which is a long-threaded type of lichen.]

The first thing to know about habits is that they are mental shortcuts relegated to a specific part of your brain and executed automatically without the need for further decision-making on your part. Life is very, very complex and we're forced to make myriads of decisions every day. If we didn't have the capacity to rehearse and memorise answers, the barrage of decisions would soon overwhelm us and in the chaos, we would stop functioning efficiently. We all have very many shortcuts stored away for later retrieval which we just take for granted. The green, amber and red traffic signal is an example of just one of our shortcuts. We instinctively, without forethought, know what to do when we approach a traffic intersection. Here's another good example of a shortcut. Get ready to solve an arithmetic expression I will give you. What is the value of five multiplied by five? Notice how quickly your mind pops out the answer, twenty-five. We rehearsed this answer as kids in primary school and we've never needed to challenge it again. We simply flick out the answer whenever we hear the question. Now try a different bit of arithmetic, one that you haven't already rehearsed and memorised and notice how difficult it is to compute. What is the value of thirteen multiplied by nineteen? Mmmm! Not so easy, is it? You have to use a very different part of your brain to compute the answer to this question and you would have to repeat the computation tomorrow if you heard the question again. The answer doesn't reside somewhere in your memory but let's be fair, if you came across this problem often in your day, you would soon store the answer in your memory bank where you could retrieve it anytime you needed it.

The second important thing to know about habits is that every one of them has a hidden benefit. You are always rewarded in some way when you perform the actions associated with a habit. Generally, the reward is well disguised. This is true for smoking, nail-biting, overeating and any other habit you choose to investigate. The hidden psychological benefit or gain isn't always that obvious to see, take smoking as an example: What benefit, if any, to you gain from smoking a cigarette? "None," you might say. Everything about smoking seems detrimental: it smells, it is increasingly anti-social, it's an emotional crutch, and most of all, it is known to dramatically increase your risk of poor health.

There's one more thing you need to know about habits so that you can learn to properly manage your New Year's Resolutions: triggers. Triggers are the things that get habits going. Triggers are prompts that cue your need to perform the action of your habit, like smoking a cigarette or eating something when you are not hungry. Triggers fall into five categories: The time of day, the people you are with, your emotional state in that moment, the place you are in at the time, and any external event that occurs around you. These triggers act like the bell Pavlov rang before feeding his dogs. After ringing the bell before each meal Pavlov fed his dogs. Over a period of time, Pavlov noticed that his dogs salivated merely at the sounding of the bell. Triggers are the kick in the butt that gets your subconscious mind to act in a conditioned, responsive way. "Ah, morning coffee — where are my cigarettes?" The morning coffee triggers the idea of having a cigarette. The conditioned response, or the action connected with the habit, is to smoke the cigarette. If you wish to break this habit (to erase the shortcut from your memory), you could do it in one of two ways: You could dig in your heels and say, "No way am I having a cigarette with my morning coffee!" We refer to this as going cold-turkey. But sadly, when habits are met with resistance, willpower becomes a necessity. Authoritative commands not to do something invariably lead to inner defiance and rebelliousness. Cravings increase proportionally to the willpower exerted to overcome them. Failure is inevitable. It's hard to push cooked spaghetti. However, what if you softened your resolute stance not to do something? What if you found the hidden benefit you gain from your unwanted habit and then to give yourself that benefit in abundance without performing the bad action connected with your habit. Let me explain. Let's say that your sunrise conversation went something like this, "Ah, morning coffee — where are my cigarettes? — But why do I need a cigarette? What am I hoping to get from smoking one which I think I can't get any other way? — Ah! Life's hectic and I'm seeking a little leisurely me-time before starting my chaotic day! — Mmmm, interesting. — So, is there a way to give myself a little extra time while I sip my coffee without having to smoke a cigarette? — Yes, I can slow things down a bit for myself by thumbing through this magazine." Cleverly uncover the real reward and indulge yourself in its gain. Simply put, this means that you should swop out an unwanted action (like smoking a cigarette) for an alternative, benign one (thumbing through the magazine) only if the alternative action unlocks the hidden gain for you. Would willpower be necessary if you always gave yourself the gain you sought from your habit? No, willpower is weak. If you find yourself needing willpower, you're pushing spaghetti.

It wasn't the smoking of a cigarette that you needed at a subconscious level but the personal moment of me-time you got by slowing things down for a moment. Smoking was the excuse you used to get some me-time. By asking the probing question, "What am I hoping to get from this action that I think I can't get any other way?" you will uncover the habit's hidden reward. Once you understand what it is, creatively find another action that allows you to take the reward in a shameless, guiltless way. Suddenly, there's no authoritative part of your mind yelling at another part telling it what not to do. There's just a sense of mental restfulness when you indulge in the benefit using your alternative, healthier action of paging through your periodical. This approach helps you sidestep feelings of denial, deprivation and rebelliousness. Suddenly, there are no cravings, and without cravings, there is no need to exert willpower. It's far easier pulling spaghetti.

The key to changing your habits is to understand what it is that you get from them and to then go out of your way to obtain that same benefit in a different, healthier and more productive way. If you are an emotional eater and eating is done to alleviate stress, then resolving to diet might just be the wrong thing to do. It could fail horribly. Why? Because the very idea of a diet is stressful and it will require a lot of discipline and willpower to stay on track. With additional stress weighing down on you, your instinct might just be to eat more. This is self-defeating. But, what if you found an alternative way of reducing your stress instead of snacking, like a little mindfulness meditation as a new part of your daily routine, you may find yourself eating much less than you did before, even though you haven't embarked upon any formal diet.

Duhigg says that habits are malleable and can change. Changes in life's circumstances often map to changes in behaviour. In the face of a personal crisis, do you revert to old, habitual ways of coping? Like, smoking, eating or drinking. If changes in life's circumstances can reintroduce an old bad habit, then why shouldn't certain changes promote cleaner living? According to Duhigg, they do. The transitional period from the end of one year to the clean break of the next, set against the backdrop of an excessively indulgent Festive Season, is often the change in life's circumstances that we are waiting for. Seize the moment but be careful how you go about the implementation of your resolutions because, as you've learned, some methods set you up for failure while other approaches underpin and guarantee your success.

I suggest that you create a mind map for your New Year's Resolutions. A mind map is a diagram used to visually organise information. It is a hierarchical relationship among pieces of a single concept, drawn as an image in the centre of a blank page, to which associated representations of ideas such as images, words and parts of words are added. Major ideas connect directly to the central concept, and other ideas branch out from those.

Take a blank sheet of paper and write the word "me" in the middle. Embellish the word nicely and the more pictorial you make your mind map, the better it'll stick in your subconscious. Now draw nine radial spokes extending outwards from the central theme and label them: Mind, Health, Fun, Financial, Career, Romance, Hobbies, Spiritual and Social. These nine categories cover most aspects of life. Embellish these surrounding ideas by drawing thumbnail pictures or icons around each facet of life. Have fun with different colours and font styles too. Turn it into a mini work-of-art. Now focus on each aspect, one at a time, and, choosing no more than three key actions describe what can be done to grow positively in this part of your life. Write down these actions around each facet, linking them together using thinner spokes. Embellish these too. In Wiseman's research, he found that a third of those who failed to realise their New Year's Resolutions did so because they had set unrealistic goals. Another third said that they didn't keep track of their progress and about a fifth said that they had altogether forgotten about having set their goals. A few said that they had made too many resolutions which overwhelmed them and left them feeling dejected. With a few strategic tweaks, you'll be incentivised to make positive changes. Pulling spaghetti is far easier than pushing it.

To sum up… There are moments when the mind is malleable. This time of year is just one of those moments. In these instances, habits form, regardless of whether they are good or bad. A personal crisis often creates mental malleability and kick-starts a bad habit. But there are also times of malleability when you find impetus enough to dismantle redundant, bad habits. The prospect of a clean, unblemished, new year ahead is generally incentive enough to get your subconscious mind ready for change. New Year's Resolutions are a good way to set the tone for the coming year. But remember, if you need to exert any willpower whatsoever, you're probably going about implementing your resolution the wrong way. This might inflame your spirit of defiance and rebelliousness, creating cravings for the very things you wish to avoid. Remembering what we learned, that the reward we get out of performing a habitual action is invariably very different from the action itself, it is vital to find the hidden benefit and then to give yourself that benefit in abundance by devising and implementing an alternative action to replace the one that doesn't serve you. Keeping to your New Year's Resolutions is then a breeze.

The New Year's Resolution I love the most is from an old calendar compiled by Bishop John H. Vincent, "I will his day try to live a simple, sincere and serene life, repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity and self-seeking, cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity and the habit of holy silence, exercising economy in expenditure, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike trust in God."

May you have a prosperous and happy New Year.

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