If you typically make New Year's resolutions on January 1 and give up on them later that day, it may not be that you totally lack discipline. It's just that you don't sufficiently appreciate what's going on in your brain, explains Joseph Shrand, M.D., an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Self-restraint is a rational desire, which means it lives in the front of the brain, the section that's most recently evolved and most vulnerable to being overruled by survival instincts. Pleasure resides in the brain's most primitive part, which has spent millions of years learning to reward us with a deeply satisfying jolt of dopamine when we give in to these kinds of urges. And while that brain circuitry evolved to encourage life-prolonging desires like eating and sex, says Dr. Shrand, we now get a rush from giving in to anything we want, whether it's an illicit drug, chocolate, or buying expensive purple peep-toe boots, even when the more evolved part of our brain tells us we'll quickly regret it.
So how do you help the rational (i.e., your New Year's resolutions) triumph over the pleasure-seeking? You need to outsmart it with these research-proven strategies.
2. Break It Up
Since your supply of self-control is finite, make resolutions that require small acts of will, not weeks of vigilance. " 'Lose 10 pounds' sounds specific, but it's less likely to work than behavioral goals like 'This week I'll try to go to the gym three times, take the stairs at work at least twice, and bring a healthy lunch every day,' " says Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC, and author of the "Baggage Check" column for the Washington Post Express. You'll feel good when you accomplish each goal, and your success will help bolster your resolve: The better you are at making small changes, the easier it will be for you to keep going.
Related: The Easiest Diet You'll Ever Try
3. Outwit Your Inner Rebel
To give your willpower some wiggle room, avoid making 100 percent resolutions. "Absolutes like 'I'm giving up all sweets' or 'I'll never use my credit card again' set you up to try to get around your own overly strict rules," says Connie Stapleton, Ph.D., a psychologist in Augusta, GA. Instead, try drafting more limited restrictions like "I'll have sweets only when I'm in a fancy restaurant."
4. Crank Up Your Greatest Hits
When you feel discouraged, remind yourself how much you've accomplished in the past, suggests Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. "People beat themselves up about still needing to lose the baby weight or no longer going to yoga class. But they overlook the long list of things they have done that required major self-discipline, like building a nest egg or sticking with the computer training they needed in order to get a better job." Lombardo's advice: "Write down 100 things you're proud of, right down to 'I get out of bed when I don't want to.' It'll remind you how much willpower you really have."
Related: Make 2011 Your Best Yet
5. Use Your Senses
The primitive cravings center is highly susceptible to visual cues, explains Tufts University psychologist Christopher Willard, Psy.D. Draw on the strength of images by putting a photo of a thinner you on the fridge, or a picture of a Caribbean beach in your wallet near your credit cards to remind yourself of the vacation that you're saving for.
Tell us: How will you make your 2011 resolutions stick?More New Year's Tips from Good Housekeeping: