Read time: 8 min.
Issue 05 * 30 December 2023

New Year, New You: Setting Intentions with Neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart

Neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, Goldster’s Success and Happiness Psychologist Kath Temple and Goldster’s NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Practitioner Jen Shackleton weigh in on the science of neuroplasticity in setting achievable goals and visualisation techniques.

Bethan Cole

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01 Setting Realistic Intentions

“It’s good that we’re talking about setting intentions rather than resolutions,” says Dr Tara Swart, the neuroscientist who hosts the podcast ‘Reinvent Yourself’. “People set really big goals and then by early February they’ve petered out.”

She observes that every year we demand major things of ourselves at the start of January, like losing an unrealistic amount of weight or starting a very full-on new fitness regime. And every year it’s the same old story, after six weeks or so we have lost the impetus to continue with it. “And it’s usually the same thing we’ve been saying for years like I’ll lose the weight,” reckons Dr Tara.

“Intentions are better than resolutions because they are more like a feeling,” she notes. “New Year intentions should be to take two to three small habits and work on them for say three months and with small things you can move towards bigger goals.”

What she’s talking about is smaller things such as upping exercising from two to three times per week or drinking more water or going to bed one hour earlier. “Smaller more achievable things and not for the whole year,” Dr Tara states, “not a really big thing like a big weight loss goal. So it shouldn’t be ‘I’m going to lose ten kilos over the year’ but ‘I’m going to lose one kilo per month’ and be clear on what you’re going to do to make that happen.”

You might do two to three things for three months and then add two to three more things in April. Introducing more and more each quarter of the year. “They are small things and you are naturally doing them. By the end of the year you’ve got ten or twelve good habits and you’ve made a serious change for the better in your behaviour,” says Dr Tara.

02 Neuroplasticity and Goals

The science behind this, according to Dr Tara, is to do with something called ‘neuroplasticity’, which is the ability of the brain to change at any age. “It’s like building a wall in your garden. You put 3 bricks down today and another 3 bricks tomorrow and you’re slowly chipping away rather than a too big goal. Micro habits is the way to get the brain to stay motivated and feel like you’re achieving something.”

She also feels that telling a friend and being held accountable for your intentions is another key to success. “If you’ve got a friend on a similar path, you can tell each other how much weight you’ve lost and keep each other motivated.” This is obviously where the group activities of Goldster come in.

Goldster’s expert Success and Happiness Psychologist Kath Temple also believes setting intentions in the first place is a good thing to do. “One of my favourite professors is Albert Bandura and he talked about ‘SEBs’ – self-efficacy beliefs. What is self-efficacy? People who believe in their capability to make things happen, people who have a high sense of agency. People who make things happen that they want to make happen. Setting goals for New Year is usually done by people with high self-efficacy.”

She also references Locke and Latham whose 2006 study found that people who set goals have higher self-esteem, more self-confidence, more motivation, more drive and more autonomy.” In other words, it’s very good psychologically to set goals.

Another study, by Matthews in 2015, found a strong connection between setting goals and actual success and Locke found that setting goals led to a happier, more contented life.

03 Visualisation Techniques for Goals

All these things happen in the brain and are rooted in neuroscience. “Goal setting primes the brain and creates expectancy, especially when combined with visualisation and the creation of a vision board,” says Kath. She goes on to explain that visual images imprint on the brain and they get tagged in the brain with a higher priority than just writing out goals and resolutions. “It’s sometimes called the Tetris effect,” she concludes, named after the 80s video game. “This activates the ‘RAS’ – Reticular Activating System – which is a network of neurons that helps us focus our attention and instructs our brain on what is important. It will also filter out what’s not important and that helps motivate us to take action to achieve our goals.”

04 Effective Habit Formation

Goldster NLP Practitioner Jen Shackleton feels that “the start of each New Year is a significant marker of time and it approaches like a landmark in the landscape of life. It can feel full of fresh possibilities, like a clean blank canvas or a brand-new page. Most of us use the potential of a New Year as a time to reflect, re-evaluate and reaffirm.”

And so it’s a great opportunity to do things differently or to try something new. Especially thinking about where we are in life – are we where we want to be? “Anchoring a goal to a New Year resolution gives it extra sticking power,” continues Jen, “According to the research of Professor John Norcross at the University of Scranton, 46 per cent of people who make a New Year’s resolution are still keeping it six months later; compared to eight per cent of those with similar goals but no set resolution are still successful after six months.” Whilst 33 per cent of resolutions are to do with physical health, 20 per cent are to do with weight loss and nine per cent to do with personal growth.

Being specific about our New Year’s resolutions or intentions can help them bear fruit. “Can we create a timeline to help us plan, or do we have an event to aim for?” says Jen.

So whether our intentions are macro or micro, Goldster can help you successfully realise them – for good.