When it comes to New Year's resolutions, achieving success using such good old-fashioned methods as will power, the buddy system or just plain white-knuckling it is like setting out on a journey in a 1959 Cadillac.
There's a certain nostalgia to it, but it's uncomfortable, you're going to burn a lot of unnecessary gas and miss out on 21st-century advancements. And let's be honest, you're likely to break down long before reaching your destination.
Sara Hare, 43, of Walnut Creek, has been down that road.
"There's this wonderful sense of renewal with the New Year, and it gives me hope that I'll turn things around," she said. "But I never pull through -- I think the methods I use to motivate myself aren't working."
But there's new hope, thanks to scientists who study the brain. Three mental techniques in particular -- visualizing past successes, modeling someone else's behavior and vicarious learning -- use biology to improve our chances of succeeding at making lasting change. Through these Tesla-like approaches, we can tap into a mental state that allows us to bypass the cerebral cortex -- the thinking part of our brain -- so that our minds are actually operating at a more primitive, reflexive level while being fully engaged, explains psychiatrist Michael Lardon.
Have you ever noticed how an Olympic weightlifter closes his eyes and takes a deep breath before he makes the lift? When he inhales, he is picturing a successful lift he's achieved in the past. In doing so, he not only pressurizes his abdomen and stabilizes his spine, but his brain is triggering systems in his body to emulate the conditions of that earlier successful lift: shifting his balance to match the stance, aligning his skeleton into the "success" posture, even shunting more blood to the muscles used, Lardon says.
By simply thinking about a successful lift, the weightlifter has changed himself biologically.
Even as an undergrad at Stanford, Lardon, who now teaches at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, was fascinated by the mental factors that influence physical performance. Over years of research, he has become convinced that visualizing past success is the most effective way to influence change.
Anthony Guffanti, of San Francisco, is proof that visualizing success works. He says it's what enabled him to achieve goals he'd set for himself after an accident left him in a wheelchair. Within months, the 60-year-old was able to walk again, and within a year, he'd resumed his daily two-hour trail and road rides in the Marin Headlands.
He said that by remembering days when he's been "absolutely satisfied" with what he accomplished, he reminds himself of what's possible.
"When in despair, I tell myself, 'You are genetically the same person you've always been, and you'll achieve what you've already achieved,' " he said.
Recalling experiences is the most effective method studied so far, say scientists, because it is the most "data driven." Times when you had your best game, your best weight-loss experience or when you remained firmly committed to your resolutions in the past are what scientists call "true data points."
"While bad experiences are also true," Lardon said, "you focus on the best you have done because that most honestly speaks to your true capacity."
Experts recommend that while setting your goals, you make up a short list of your most successful experiences performing the goal or a similar task. Preparing this list in advance has the added benefit of removing unconscious doubts that might inhibit you from going for it. Should the need arise, you can easily call up those preselected experiences so your brain can provide your body with an unconscious template to repeat that success.
As effective as visualizing success is, it's not the only tool for goal-setting resolution-makers, neuroscientists say. Other promising methods include modeling someone else's behavior as well as engaging in "vicarious learning," which is basically, "If you can do it, I can do it."
Juliette Carstensen, of Antioch, used both methods to achieve her 2013 New Year's resolution to improve in soccer.
"And it actually happened!" 10-year-old Juliette said.
In clutch moments, she says, she'd "think about the players in the bigger leagues, and what they would do."
She arrived early to practice and games to watch older girls' teams play and observe their techniques. She also emulates her coaches.
"I can't do drop kicks very far -- yet," she says. "But I feel like when I imitate my coaches' technique, I improve. I'm (kicking it) farther and farther."
Jacob Mitchoff, of Concord, employed vicarious learning, without even knowing it. The UPS worker set a 2013 resolution to stay fit in order to avoid injuries at work.
"I would watch my buddy do something, then I knew I could do it because I know I can do what he does," Mitchoff says. The 27-year-old also boosted his confidence by reminding himself of something he'd heard -- that most men should be able to bench their body weight and squat double.
"Knowing that makes it more doable," he said. By keeping that in mind, Mitchoff was able to stick with a workout regimen that required four to seven days per week at the gym and left his body fit, well defined -- and injury free.
Mitchoff is looking forward to making new resolutions this New Year's Eve. This year he plans to help a friend who's overweight get fit, as well as the friend's wife, who just had a baby.
"We're going to try to push each other," he says.
As strongly as he believes in the effectiveness of the science of visualizing success, Guffanti points out there's no harm in mixing the old-school buddy-system with the 21st century methods.
"I have helped people who are off by reminding them, 'You have the same greatness you've always had. You have the talent and ability -- you just have to remember that and then get out of your own way.' "
Contact DeAnne Musolf at firstname.lastname@example.org.