New Year’s Resolutions and Changing our Default

October 6, 2019

5 min read


Change is possible when we make our goals feel like easy options.

Twelve days. That’s the length of time most people keep New Year’s resolutions, according to one 2018 study. We mean well when we make decisions to change, but in most cases, getting out of the rut of habits and ingrained routines proves too hard.

Recent research sheds light on why change can be so daunting - and can also teach us tricks to use to make our resolutions stick.

Our brains use more than one mode of thinking. For some tasks, we employ a deliberative mode (called “System 2” by neuropsychologists). his is the thinking we use when tackling difficult tasks that require a lot of thought. What is 24 x 87? What’s the quickest way to drive to the airport? How should you handle a difficult client? These sorts of tasks require concentration: our brains are able to perform this sort of thinking but it requires a lot of effort.

Most tasks are shunted to a different mode of thinking (sometimes called “System 1”). This brain behavior governs activities like smiling at a friend, stepping around someone who’s stopped on the sidewalk in front of us, and navigating our daily route to work. It’s our brain on autopilot and the type of thinking we’re hard-wired to prefer. Some researchers refer to this type of thinking as our “default”, presenting us with the easiest, least thought-intensive options.

The problem with resolutions is that too often they tap into the first mode of thought. I want to exercise more, eat better and carve out more time to take classes, but as long as they feel like difficult deliberate choices instead of my natural, default way of doing things, they will seem hard and unnatural. One way to trick the brain into performing new activities is to make goals seem like easier, default choices.

Healthy Eating

Take making healthy eating choices. After reading research about the way our brains choose whatever option feels easiest, I decided to put some of their suggestions into action - at least where healthy food was concerned. I started putting colorful fruit and cut up vegetables in attractive bowls in my refrigerator: whenever someone wanted a quick snack, those healthy options were the easiest to grab. (I also hid less-healthy foods in the back, out of sight.) The results were striking: we all started munching on fruits and veggies much more. The ease of grabbing a handful of carrots or a bowl of blueberries meant those became our new snacks.

Reframing Money Choices

It’s not only snacks where this works: there are myriad ways to reframe our choices, making desired outcomes our easiest, default, ways of behaving.

Making financial decisions can seem particularly daunting and complex. One study found that about 80% of Americans keep retirement savings in standard retirement plans, even when better options are clearly available. A common money trick that financial experts recommend is setting up an automatic deduction to a dedicated savings account, forcing us to put money aside each month as savings as our new “default” option.

The same trick can be an effective way to make sure we fulfill our goals to give charity too. For years, my husband and I have had a standing monthly charge on our credit card to donate to a local Jewish education fund; this way we never have to think about allocating money or take the steps of writing out a check. Daily Giving is another way to ensure we give charity to Jewish organizations regularly: monthly or annual credit card charges make sure that we donate money to Jewish charities each and every day, without thinking too much about it.

Making Time for Learning

Hillel advised, “Do not say, ‘When I am free I will study’, for perhaps you will not become free” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). If it was difficult back then to carve out time for studying and taking classes, it surely feels next to impossible today in our crazy-busy world. The only solution to having no time, it seems, is changing our default setting to making time to learn and grow.

A friend of mine hosts a weekly class at her house because it was the only way she could ensure she’d actually find the time to attend.One friend hired a rabbi to come to his house each week after work to learn Torah. Another friend hired a personal trainer to come early in the morning and get her moving. They all found ways to make taking classes or carving out time for study or other lessons part of their weekly routines.

Be Creative

We all have areas in our life that can benefit from these and similar changes. Set aside time to consider your individual goals and brainstorm ways to make your desired outcomes your new “default”.

While every day is a chance to make new resolutions and grow, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is especially propitious. May our new year be filled with success and blessings, and may all be successful in achieving the goals we set now throughout our year.

Next Steps