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How to Stick to Your Resolutions by Hacking Your Brain

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When former U.S. Marine Jason Scott Johnson set out to write a book on everyday fitness, he faced an unusual challenge. Not only would he have to boil down his intensive workout regimen into widely accessible tips, but he'd also have to translate his sense of discipline into words that would motivate ordinary readers to set clear health goals and stick with them.

Johnson arrived at a set of motivational tactics that, interestingly enough, have been used by psychologists for decades and studied by neuroscientists for nearly as long. The wide range of personal problems to which psychotherapists have applied concepts like these, and the level of detail at which brain researchers have explored them, can help us pinpoint some of the subtle tricks that our minds play on us every day. These "trade secrets" of the brain can also provide us some clues about how to hack our mental processes and get them working on our side.

Take, for instance, Johnson's suggestion of keeping a "Win Journal" for noting small successes on a daily basis. Psychotherapists have a long history of advising patients to keep a journal like this, for purposes such as sticking to new year's resolutions and overcoming chronic depression. And that's because these two problems -- bad habits and poor self-esteem -- often share a common and surprisingly simple cause: We're wired, on the whole, to relive negative memories more vividly than positive ones.

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We've found evidence that even animals like mice share this tendency of ours, and scientists have a pretty good idea of why natural selection tends to preserve it. For a mouse (or an ape), preserving a vivid memory of a sweet-smelling flower or a cool swim doesn't offer any particular survival benefit, but if a certain shape of shadow means a predator lurks nearby, quick recognition and reaction are all that separate survival from death. In fact, as I've talked about in a previous blog post, traumatic experiences can work like drugs, activating unique sensory and emotional pathways that cement vivid memories in long-term storage.

Of course, that's not to say that you can't form vivid long-term memories of your first kiss or your latest roller-coaster plunge, nor does this evolutionary adaptation lessen the importance of recognizing when your bad habits and memories turn into destructive obsessions. In fact, that's one crucial trait that separates you from your mammalian relatives: You can choose to keep a record of happy memories to counteract an overactive survival mentality.

Whether you keep a "Win Journal" or just a photo album, your story will serve as a constant reminder of what you're capable of -- and inspire you to shoot even higher in the future. And psychologists suggest coupling this technique with a related one: giving yourself little rewards, like a dinner out or a drive in the countryside, every time you meet a milestone or step outside your comfort zone. The more you reshape your expectations of yourself and reward yourself when you defy those old limits, the more you'll find yourself sticking to your goals.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, whether we're conscious that we're telling them or not, exert quite a pull on our will power and self-control. From birth until death, our brains never stop looking for ways to perform common tasks more efficiently, and that means it's not easy to reshape neural pathways that have gotten comfortable playing out the same old habits. But the good news is that dread of change is nowhere near as powerful as expectation of rewards, once you get into the habit of expecting them. So what kind of story do you want to tell yourself this year?