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How to beat brain inertia and keep new resolutions going
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How to beat brain inertia and keep new resolutions going

Sticking to new year resolutions can be tough. Understanding how the brain deals with learning new things and continuing with them helps to achieve the goal
scrapbook with sticky notes of resolutions
Representational image | Canva

“Resolutions! Me? Just what are you implying? That I need to change?

That was the precocious Calvin’s indignant outburst from the popular Calvin and Hobbes comic series.

As the clock ticks towards a new year, we have an innate urge to make resolutions. But frankly, how many of them see the light of day? Often the little procrastinator within resets the grand plan with ‘from tomorrow’ or ‘next time’.

The devil’s advocate

Is it not surprising that the very brain we employ to make the resolutions resists the efforts to carry them out!

Science tells us that the brain resists stepping out of its comfort zone.

Although the brain accounts for only 2 per cent of the body weight, it uses up nearly 20 per cent of the body’s energy (in terms of oxygen). Inherently and to conserve energy, the brain chooses the path of least resistance expending minimum energy for tasks. As new habits and learning will require much energy to create new neural pathways, the brain naturally resists forming them.

Hence, we require extra effort to push the brain into action. Many habit changes like getting up early, working out regularly, and journaling are strenuous for the brain.

An inner inertia

Stanford University professor Andrew Huberman in a podcast, explains it succinctly with an example of the difference between actually doing it and wanting to do it.

People say, “I’ve been trying to develop the habit of taking a walk after dinner.”

While some would say, `So, let us get up and go,’ the nay-sayers will feel like, `Not now’ or `I just don’t want to do it today.’

Huberman coined the term limbic friction to mark how the emotional center of the brain – the limbic system – can cause inertia towards doing an activity. The energy required to overcome the action can be taxing to the brain.

Dopamine at work

Despite this resistance, why do we persist in making new resolutions? It is because of dopamine, the feel-good hormone secreted in the brain. We know that when we achieve something, dopamine is released, giving us a euphoria-like feeling.

However, a study published in Nature observed that dopamine gets released not only when the goal is accomplished but also during the process — as a motivating factor while ramping up to the activity.

Another study showed that emotions play a role in keeping to resolutions. The researchers found that assigning emotional significance to the resolution pushes the frontal lobe to participate actively in realising it. The frontal lobe is the brain region involved in rational thinking.

Dr Emily Balcetis, lead author of the study, recounts her attempts at learning to drum. On introspection of the times she almost gave up, she noticed that negative self-talk demotivated her. Whereas she was motivated for the next when she began to consciously recall the emotion she derived during practice.

She says positive words encouraged her to learn playing the drum and achieve the goal. “When I looked at my ‘emotion words’ that I used, it was a clear upward trajectory,” she said in a podcast.

To sum it up, science says the stronger the desire to achieve a goal, the higher the chance to achieve it.

‘See’ what you want to do

Warming up to the goal through detailed visualisation is another way to ensure the brain complies with our intent, say studies. The visual cortical region of the brain is an ally and a powerful tool to manifest the resolutions.

For example, consider a resolution like going for a walk every morning. Studies show that carefully imagining the series of events that lead to completing the tasks is a sure-fire way to achieving it. Visualising the events in minute detail – for example, waking up, freshening up, having coffee, changing into exercise clothes, identifying the audio playlist to listen to along the way, the walking route and the feeling you might derive by the end of the walk – will nail the idea for the brain.

Activate the intent

This routine of step-by-step imagination – called procedural memory visualisation – kickstarts the neuronal activity in the brain. Therefore, every time we set forth to do the activity, the memory recalls the events, keeping the neural pathway active.

The neural activity is further strengthened by what is called Hebbian learning. Specific receptors called NMDA receptors and methyl-D aspartate receptors aid the neurons in smoothly setting the neural pathway. This method progressively removes the effect of limbic friction or inertia.

This type of vision board keeps the neurons fired up till the neural pathway is set – reaching the goal of keeping the resolution.

Creating a pattern

And finally, consistently reinforcing the start-to-end actions and repeating the task is critical in imprinting the habit into the brain. For this, a brain region called the basal ganglia kicks in to perform what is known as task bracketing, which turns the action into a behavioural pattern.

The basal ganglia are responsible for our physical movement, executive functions, behaviour and emotions – all of which create a habit, just like we brush our teeth as soon as we wake up.

The following pointers sum up the key steps in aiding the brain to form the required nerve pathways that help us in sticking to our resolutions:

  1. Have the ‘bookends’ in place: clearly define the start and the end of the intended action.
  2. Stack them up: explicitly visualise the steps involved in the action.
  3. Do not let the dust settle: consistency is key
  4. Do not judge the book by its cover: be patient, as the brain takes time to form a new neural pathway.

Just be at it! May your brain beat the inertia and lead you into a year of fruitful resolves.

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2 Responses

  1. That totally explains why I haven’t been able to learn a musical instrument yet even though I have bought and sold atleast 5-7 instruments till date..
    Keep missing out the visualisation and consistency parts…
    It’s a very helpful framework and Logi

    1. Dear Sriram,
      Thank you for your feedback.
      We are glad this article helped you crack the code and successfully learn a musical instrument!
      Do keep engaging with pour articles.

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