Blaze a New Trail in the New Year: Ways to Change Your Life that Really Work

This is the season when many of us are taking stock of our lives. The Christmas holiday and another year is behind us and the new year looms with all its promise and possibility. On New Year’s we may make resolutions, to lose weight, stop drinking, follow a budget, spend less time watching television and more time learning Spanish, focus more on our primary relationship, communicate more effectively or look for a better job. But most of us will fail in our attempt to let go of old habits and begin new ones. Why is it so hard to change and why don’t New Year’s resolutions work? It all starts in the brain.

Anything that we have done over and over again has created a strong neuropathway. The saying goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What this means is that over time our habits have created powerful connections between neurons in the brain that make doing what we have always done more comfortable, easier, than doing something different.

It is as if we have taken a walk in the woods every day and stayed to the same trail. Eventually that path has become very easy to follow. There are no branches or brambles in the way and no grass growing where we walk. The path is clear and well-trodden. Changing our behavior and thus our neuropathways is, at first, like bushwhacking a new trail through the forest. There is brush to clear and weeds to pull and if we aren’t consistent the branches and weeds will quickly grow back.

So, changing behavior is a process. This why resolutions don’t work. Making a decision to change and expecting yourself to just wake up the next day and do things differently is denying the powerful pull of the well-worn trail in the brain.

So what does work if you want to change behavior?

1. Taking small steps towards a goal works much more effectively than an all or nothing approach. This is called shaping. For example, research has shown that a strict diet which totally eliminates certain categories of food almost always fails in the end. After some initial success, we feel deprived and go back to old eating habits. We tell ourselves, “Well I’ve already blown it, so what does it matter?” A more effective approach is to gradually reduce portion size and keep healthy, low calorie foods within easy reach and high calorie foods in a place that requires some effort to access.

Simply taking a few potato chips out of the bag to eat, putting them in a small bowl and then returning the bag to a high shelf, can help deter over-doing it. It is like placing a log across the well-worn path in the woods. Yes, we can still scurry over it, but chances are the new path looks easier, so we are more likely to follow it.

2. Research has taught us that what is within easy reach is what we will gravitate to. So, if you want to learn Spanish and watch less TV, hide your remote and put your Spanish text next to the chair you sit down in regularly. If you want to go for a run in the morning, put your running clothes out the night before right beside your bed. Make your new behavior the path of least resistance.

3. Reward yourself. Small rewards can help reinforce behavior. Something as simple as making a check mark on a calendar or crossing something off a list can be rewarding. For dieting and exercise, tools such as My Fitness Pal, an app for smart phones, can also help reward your efforts, by recording what you eat and your activity level. Devices you wear that track number of steps taken throughout the day have also been shown to be helpful in increasing activity levels. Rewards don’t need to be elaborate or expensive, they only need to be consistent and give you a tiny feel good boost of endorphins each time you engage.

4. Get support. It is often easier to accomplish something if you have a buddy doing it with you. Will you cancel if your friend is waiting at the gym to work out? Or, if the teacher you hired has given you Spanish homework, will you be more likely to follow through? If you are like most of us having another person involved will be motivating. Enlist a friend, colleague or family member to be your trail buddy.

5. Don’t give up. Changing behavior takes time and persistence. But the good news is that no matter your age your brain is able to develop new neuropathways that support new ways of being. You can blaze a new trail.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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