The one reason why your friends can’t keep their New Year resolutions

Have you ever successfully kept a New Year resolution? No? Don’t worry polls show that 88% of people are in the same boat.

This is the time of year where people set resolutions they can’t keep. Well actually, they’re less like”resolutions” than a vague passing notion that boils down to: “This is how I’d like to change myself in a perfect world where I can actually do what I say. I think I’ll try that for a few days before giving up.”

So how do we make resolutions that actually work? Watch as I experiment on myself in this article.

How do cue and rewards relate to behavior?

First, I had to find out the theory behind building habits that stick. Wolfram Schultz, professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, conducted several studies that revolutionized our understanding of how cues, habits and rewards interact.

The experiment I found particularly interesting was one he conducted on an 8 pound macaque monkey called Julio.  The professor’s team inserted a very thin electrode into Julio’s brain. This so his neural activity could be observed.

Wait! Wasn’t this what triggered “The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes”?

Pictured: What happened to the Professor's team

Pictured: What happened to the Professor’s team

Man, when will we ever learn? Anyways, Julio was positioned in a dark room with a computer screen that looped a series of different shapes. Julio really liked blackberry juice. If he could hit a lever when a certain shape appeared, a drop of blackberry juice would descend from the ceiling. This reward would light up the pleasure pathways of his brain. Now we know this already from studies on mice in the Skinner’s box.

The interesting bit in this study took a while to show up. You see, over time, Julio had begun to anticipate the blackberry juice whenever the computer screen lit up with the squiggly shapes. His pleasure centers would fire BEFORE the blackberry juice arrived.

The behavior is not the reward

This study shows there are distinct phases to learning a new behavior. First, there’s the cue for the habit, which in Julio’s case was the computer screen lighting up with squiggly lines. A cue can be anything, a time of day, a certain place, a pre-behavior like lacing up your running shoes. That’s easy enough to understand.

People get confused on behavior versus reward. They think that the behavior they’re trying to learn should be the reward. Most who want to start exercising imagine themselves in a Rocky training montage that ends with them pulling up their shirt to reveal their sexy new abs. Gym rats will tell you how fantastic they feel after they hit the gym (the freaks).

But if you’ve ever tried exercising after a long diet of couch potato, your body doesn’t feel rewarded. It’s screaming out “Are you fracking crazy? I’m hungry and tired and sore, I must be allergic to exercise!”.

That’s why the behavior itself should never be the reward in the beginning. The reward has to be something that we really like. I know it seems counter-intuitive but if your new resolution is to start running 2 km a day and you reward yourself with a sea-kale protein shake, you’re not going to get very far.

If you keep going, your body will recognize the benefits of exercise and the behavior will become the reward. Like how Julio has his pleasure centers lit up even before the blackberry juice comes.

Experimental test subject: Aksel

Take 1, get up early and exercise

I’ve read a lot about how the top performers get up earlier in the day so they can get a head start. So I decided I would wake up earlier every day to work out.

Armed with this mantra of cue-behavior-reward, I will take on the world!

I set my alarm for 7 am, half an hour before my waking time. This was exciting, I’m going to kick my old couch potato self into the ground!

When the alarm rang in the morning, I got up, slammed the snooze button, well this was my iPhone, so I blearily keyed in my passcode to get the alarm to stop ringing and went back to sleep. I gave it my standard 2 weeks to settle in. And…. NADA. I did not succeed in getting up even once in this 2 week period.

Maybe, I’m trying to do too much. After all, I was trying to wake earlier AND exercise.

Obligatory Star Wars picture tie-in

Take 2, just exercise

So I changed the parameters of my experiment. Instead of getting up at 7 am as my intention, I decided my 7 minute workout would be at 11.10 pm. Don’t ask me why I chose 11.10. It just happened.

I set up a snazzy exercise tune to go off at 11.10 pm. I choose my exercise pants. I dedicated an area of the house as my “exercise area”. I left said pants in area. When starting a new behavior, we want to give our brains as many cues as possible so that it has something to “latch” on to.

The first few tries were as horrible as I thought it would be. I haven’t exercised regularly in almost 2 years now after stopping my MMA classes. My body told me I was a retard for pushing it and my mind was agreeing with my body. So I had to give myself rewards that were worth it. There’s nothing quite like taking a cold shower immediately after exercising, eating a piece of Tolberone AND watching a funny kitten video at the same time. I’m not too sure which exactly it is my brain is craving.

My compliance rates after 2 weeks soared. I’m now doing 7 minutes of workout 4 days out of 7. What’s interesting is I can feel my brain consciously reminding me to start exercising. I can sense that 11.10 pm is arriving even before the alarm rings.

It’s not your fault if you haven’t been able to keep your new year resolutions. You just haven’t been equipped with the right information. This year, start with the smallest change you want to make. Let me know what resolutions you are going to use cue-behavior-reward on at aksel@

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  1. Hey Aksel great stuff! Not just new year resolution is hard to keep but anything that we ought to get us better are hard to be consistent.

    • I agree 🙂 I too have weaknesses I want to improve on. But understanding the mechanics makes it a lot easier! What resolutions do you want to keep to in 2016?

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