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Published December 28, 2011, 11:30 PM

Mathison: New year, new you, new me?

As 2011 winds down, I reflect on the past year and its lessons, and then look forward to the new one, a clean slate.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

“Once you make a decision, the whole world conspires to make it happen.” – Emerson

As 2011 winds down, I reflect on the past year and its lessons, and then look forward to the new one, a clean slate. Will 2012 be my year to do yoga and Zumba (not at the same time), meditate, save more money, be more patient and – this one’s always on my list – lose weight?

The new planner is pristine and full of possibility and promise. Yet time seems to speed by, along with my life. I want to use my time wisely. Do you take time to reflect on how you want to spend the 12 months, 52 weeks, 366 days, 8,784 hours?

Steven Covey says this is the perfect time to “sharpen the saw.” This habit of self-renewal has four elements. The first is mental, which includes reading, visualizing, planning and writing. The second is spiritual, which means value clarification and commitment, study and meditation. Third is social/emotional, which includes service, empathy, synergy and intrinsic security. Finally, the physical element includes exercise, nutrition and stress management.

I like the framework he suggests. One of my friends takes the first week of January off to make time for a similar practice. This might not seem like a great vacation, but she swears by this as the perfect way to start the year.

Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But significant changes are hard to make. We can blame our brains to some extent. According to neurologist Paul MacLean, our heads have three brains, not one. While they are connected, they don’t always act with a coordinated “Team You” approach.

The “reptilian” brain is the instinctive part of us, outside our conscious control. Located in the cerebellum and brain stem, this brain is in charge of our breathing, heartbeat and other automatic body functions.

The second brain is the limbic system and is the source of our emotions, which really come down to moving us toward pleasure and safety and away from pain and danger. We learn how to respond at a young age to situations in this context, and as we mature, our actions are not always wise because the emotional limbic brain is in a state of “arrested development.” An uncomfortable conversation might send us straight into fight or flight mode. The allure of a warm chocolate chip cookie appeals to our search for pleasure.

The third brain is the neocortex, the thinking brain that distinguishes humans from animals. This is the part of our brain capable of logic and abstraction, as well as artistic, verbal and musical endeavors. This is the part of our brain that learns and wants to change and make things better. But depending on what it is, how it’s presented and what we’ve done in the past, our emotional brain may not cooperate. Remember what it’s scanning for? Pleasure and safety.

According to MJ Ryan, author of “This Year I Will ... : How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream Come True” (2006), that’s why we so often “sabotage” ourselves – our emotional brain overrides what our thinking brain has decided in favor of immediate pleasure (cookie) or perceived safety (keep your mouth shut).

More brain science: Our thinking brain has a left side – the analytic, present-tense, data-driven side that focuses on why we are who we are. The right side is creative, innovative and future-oriented, the place for our hopes and dreams, and critical to re-shaping our lives.

Ryan expands by saying, “Innovative thinking is not interested in why, but in what could be possible. It asks questions such as: What do I want now? What do I need to do to bring my heart’s desire into being? “Switching from “why” thinking to “what could be possible” thinking might make all the difference when you reflect on a new year: “What can I do to have more balance in my life today?” rather than “Why am I a workaholic?” “What help do I need right now?” rather than “Why is this happening to me?” Do you notice the difference in the two choices? “One leads to rumination and stuckness; the other to creative possibilities and forward momentum,” she states.

A few things that make your brain work for you and not against you in the new year:

  • Small steps work. Example: Plan to read 10 pages a day, or de-clutter for 30 minutes max per day. Over time, the effort is monumental.

  • Consistent effort works. Make it a new habit. Example: If you learn to move every day – no excuses – your “reptilian” brain demands this to feel good.

  • Build on a current positive behavior. Example: If you meditate for 5 minutes a day, make it 10.

  • Add habits rather than removing them. Example: Add another serving of green vegetables to lunch and dinner.

  • Address the emotion behind the desire for change. Example: I want to save more money to feel secure and safe.

  • Be specific and schedule activities that support your resolutions. Example: Use your new planner to schedule dates with yourself as the “new you.”

  • Consider a theme for the year, and narrow your resolutions down to three to four that you can focus on. Example: My theme this year is healing.

I’d love to hear about what works for you as you plan for 2012.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.