Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist in Cleveland Clinic Center for Behavioral Health. She spoke with us about all things New Year’s Resolutions: why we make them, how to stick with them, and how goal-setting may affect your brain health.

Read the Q&A with Dr. Albers-Bowling below.

WAM: There are so many reasons why making New Year’s resolutions around improved health can have a big impact on our brains. Let’s start with the idea of making a resolution itself. Why do we make these pledges to ourselves? What’s the psychology involved in wanting to make change? ​
Dr. Albers-Bowling: The tradition of setting New Year’s resolution dates back to ancient Babylonians. It’s human nature to want to improve and to be the best version we can be of ourselves. Every year, millions of people around the world make New Year’s resolutions in the hopes of improving their lives. There is no better time for starting a new hobby or healthy habit. However, New Years’ Resolutions are not easy to keep. Studies show that people, on average, tend to give up on their resolutions by January 19th. People tend to make the same exact New Year’s resolution year after year, and it shows that there is a gap between what we want and what we do.

The most common goals include:
1. Weight loss and exercise
2. Improve finances
3. Spend more time with loved ones
4. Less time on social media
5. Since the pandemic, many people have added improving their mental health to their list.

You can increase the likelihood of a resolution happening by:
1. Keeping data. Use technology and apps. This helps to track your progress.
2. Start a new behavior instead of stopping one, it’s easier. For example, aim to start eating vegetable and fruit vs. telling yourself to stop eating sugar.
3. Set an intention vs. a resolution. This means choosing one word to bring to all your behaviors instead of making one that you have to meet a certain bar or expectation. For example, if you choose mindfulness, you do all actions more mindfully this year.

WAM: Are we more likely to succeed if the goal is ambitious or more easily achieved?
Dr. Albers-Bowling: Always make New Year’s Resolutions achievable, obtainable and realistic. Too often, we choose NYR that are too far from where we already are. It’s like asking yourself to run a marathon when you have only walked a mile. We are easily frustrated and give up when a goal is too ambitious or way out of our reach. We like a little bit of challenge, but one we can actually reach. Otherwise, it’s easy to feel defeated.

WAM: There are studies that show goal-setting can do more than change your habits. It can actually restructure your brain. How does that work and why is it a good thing?
Dr. Albers-Bowling: When you focus on a goal, it fires pathways and neurons in the brain. Each time you think about this goal, your brain makes new and strong bonds between these parts of your brain. Your brain has neuroplasticity. So, it is able to change and modify based on experiences. The more your expose your brain to new things, the more it adapts to incorporate those experiences. Goal setting is all about focus. It points your brain in a certain direction and activates part of the brain linked to action and emotion.

WAM: What are the biggest obstacles to achieving our goals, and what are some tips for overcoming them?
Dr. Albers-Bowling: Mindset is often a big challenge. Sometimes people don’t believe that they can make a change or fear that they will fail. There are three common things that often stand in the way:

1. The goal is not specific enough. Instead of saying, I want to exercise more. Change it to I want to exercise for 20 minutes a day.
2. It’s not realistic or unsustainable. For example, diets are not things that you can do for the long run.
3. We don’t remove obstacles. For example, if time is a problem, brainstorm how to address this problem.

Here are some tips:

Close your eyes. Imagine yourself achieving this goal. Picture what you would look like engaging it and how it would feel. Dive into a lot of detail. Your brain actually doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality. For example, imagine biting into a lemon. Thinking about it makes you salivate. Imagining creates new pathways in the brain that tricks your brain into thinking it is already happened.

Remind yourself of other big goals you have been able to accomplish. Make a list. It’s tempting to only think about the things you haven’t accomplished vs. what you have.

Get support. Having a cheerleader whether it is a friend or coworker can help you to stay motivated.

Time. Goals require you to move it up on the priority list. This can squeeze out other important things.

Remove emotional obstacles. If you really desire and goal and can’t seem to make it happen, a therapist can help you to piece apart any emotional blocks that might be standing in the way.

Exercise and healthy eating are the #1 resolution that people make every year. This is tough when it is cold and dark outside. Here are some examples on how to change that:
1. REFRAME. Many of us cringe when we hear the word exercise. It can be important to reframe that world. Instead tell yourself to do some mindful movement. This could include, stretching, going up and down the stairs, dancing, cleaning, playing a virtual reality game. Commit to 20 minutes of exercise a day. Exercise is a natural anti-depressant.

2. Habit stacking is a helpful technique to easily make an exercise routine a permanent part of your routine. Habit stacking is essentially linking a new behavior with a pre-existing routine that you already do like clockwork. So one behavior naturally prompts another. Routine is one of the best ways to make a new behavior stick. For example, if you routinely drink coffee every morning, make the very next behavior doing 20 minutes of mindful movement.
3. Social support. The #1 predictor of beginning an exercise program is social support. Although many of us can’t meet at the gym at this time. You can create a social media group. Facetime while you work out.
4. Make a list of obstacles. Too often we don’t create a contingency plan when things stand in the way. When it doesn’t happen, we throw up our hands and say, I’m done. Write down a list of “if, then” statements. For example, if I am not able to _ (save 100 this month, then plan B is to ______ (save what I can and make up the difference next month)
5. Create cues. It’s so easy to forget our goals because our minds are so busy. Visual prompts can help. Hang them up in an easy to see location.
6. Use a light therapy lamp. This is important when it is cold. Not only does it help our sleep and mood, it helps to boost energy and motivation.

WAM: If the goal is to improve your overall brain health, what are the top resolution you’d focus on?
Dr. Albers-Bowling: Healthy eating and hydration are essential. Getting the right kinds of nutrients and hydration are essential for your brain to work well. They are necessary for focus and concentration. When you diet or restrict your food intake, your brain starves as well. Walnuts, blueberries, eggs, leafy greens, for example, are an example of foods that helps your brain. Walnuts for example, are high in omega 3 fatty acid and well known to boost your focus and concentration. Eat a handful a day.

Getting 7-9 hours of sleep is key as well. Lack of sleep impacts your hormones and makes it difficult to make decisions.

Limit or slow the scrolling. The fast pace of scrolling on social media makes your brain impatient and shortens your attention span.

Keep your mind active. Do puzzles, read, or do something new. This helps to strengthen the activity in your brain and creates new neural pathways.