Your Brain and Your New Year’s Resolutions


By Julie Russell, MA

The first of January marks the day many of us promise to do things differently, to make an improvement in our lives. Nowadays, New Year’s resolutions are typically personal health-related goals or a desired lifestyle change. 

Before we resolve to eat healthier, exercise more, lose weight, or any other lifestyle change goal that is commonly made each new year (though uncommonly maintained), we should focus first on changing our mindset to act differently. Mindset refers to our outlook; it is how we interpret what is happening around us. How we perceive our surroundings can determine whether we will make progress, or whether we will remain static. 

This year there are many external factors that may be contributing to a stuck or static mindset. Most Americans are literally stuck at home, working remotely and unable to go places where they used to get exercise and meet up with others who may be essential supporters to achieving their New Year’s resolution. Many people are also feeling emotionally overwhelmed by events occurring both in their personal lives and in the public sphere. These conditions may be creating a mindset that we cannot make progress until these other aspects of our lives are different. 

We might tell ourselves that we will make healthy lifestyle changes once life returns to the way it was, or to the way we expect it to become. As we settle into the waiting room of our aspirations, we can’t help but generate thoughts that the conditions may never be right and we defeat our ambitions before ever making any physical effort. 

Such a mindset can be generated through a simple focusing practice. Meditation is scientifically proven to focus attention and can be used to develop the mental language that empowers us to act with purpose. It is a technique to quiet mental distractions and concentrate thoughts towards a specific action. Often the breath is used as a way to begin focusing thoughts, as breathing is an automatic action that requires no effort. When paying attention to the breath, the meditator notices the in and out, the tempo, the sensations that accompany the flow of air, the subtle differences in each breath. When thoughts start to wander away from the breath, the meditator notices it and simply returns their attention to the breath again. Using the breath is the simplest way to practice focusing attention. 

From the breath, the meditation can move on to a new focus of action. If eating healthy for the day is a desire, the meditator can focus thoughts on a meal plan, and visualize the exact steps that will go into the action of preparing healthy food for the day and enjoying it. This visualization technique helps to prepare the mind for the act of eating healthy, and once the mind is set in motion, the body is primed for action. 

Think of how you want to be, and then do what you have to do.