New Year, New You
Pick your resolution, but if you’re like me, at least one of those resolutions is on your list. What is it about the new year that makes us believe that January 1 will be the day we turn over a new leaf and suddenly become the person we believe we should be?
Why do resolutions fail? Is it a collective mass of lack of willpower, or are there other factors involved? Willpower researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD, describes three necessary components for achieving goals.
- you need to establish the motivation for change and set a clear goal;
- you need to monitor your behavior toward that goal; and
One reason that resolutions fall by the wayside is the motivation behind them. A 1996 study of 128 patients in a six-month low calorie weight loss program determined that those with an internal locus of control, i.e., those who believed their behaviors are reliably linked to outcomes, were most successful in the weight loss program and the maintenance of the weight loss.1 In other words, if you are trying to lose weight because you want to do it for yourself, you have a much better chance of success than if your doctor told you to drop 10 pounds.
Another reason that New Year’s resolutions fail is that the goals can be inflated. It’s not realistic to think you can go from eating fast food several times a week to “eating healthy” every day. If you’re inactive, it’s highly unlikely you can commit to exercising an hour a day FOREVER. Therefore, for a behavior change to stick, the goal must have a personal importance. It also must be specific, measurable and attainable.
One reason that resolutions fall by the wayside is the motivation behind them. Another reason that New Year’s resolutions fail is that the goals can be inflated.
For example, going from couch potato status to exercising seven days a week is not a sustainable goal. Instead, pick a goal of walking 30 minutes (or whatever exercise you choose) three times a week, or twice, or once. Whatever is realistic for you at this moment. Once you establish the habit, you can increase the time and the frequency. Saving money is too nebulous, but putting aside $20 a week for a vacation fund is something achievable and measurable.
Is willpower enough?
What exactly is willpower? Willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. Is it a limited resource? Why is it that I can walk by the doughnuts outside of my office four times, but after an energy-draining conference call, I eat three of them?
Roy Baumeister tested the theory of willpower depletion in a 1998 study. The basic premise is that every day, in one form or another, you exert willpower. You bite your tongue when you really want to make a snide comment, or you do your work rather than check Facebook.
Evidence suggests these efforts deplete willpower. Sleep deprivation is another reason. Other evidence suggests that willpower-depleted individuals may simply be low on fuel. Human subjects who exerted willpower in lab tasks had lower glucose levels than subjects who weren’t asked to assert self-control. Restoring glucose can help reboot run-down power.
Safety net: beliefs and attitudes
The good news is that willpower can be kept in check by your beliefs and attitudes. Also a good mood can overcome some of the willpower-depletion effects normally seen after exercising self-control.
Below are a few tips to help those New Year’s resolutions stick beyond January 15:
- Anticipate and plan for your times of low self-control. If you’re trying to lose weight, don’t grocery shop when tired and hungry.
- Exercise your willpower muscle to get more of it. Some good evidence suggests that exercising willpower, though temporarily depleting, can help willpower to be stronger in the long run.
- If you do fall off track, don’t let that be an indicator of complete failure. Look at your triggers; make a plan for what you can do differently the next time this happens and move forward.
- For the technologically inclined, there are several apps that can help you stick to your goals: MyFitnessPal, SparkRecipes, MyQuit Coach, Mint, Acorns, Pacifica
Something that you can ask yourself on a daily basis is: “What do I want? What am I doing? Do they match?”
If the answers to those questions align, you are well on your way to success.
1 Williams, Geoffrey C et al., Motivational Predictors or Weight Loss and Weight-Loss Maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996,70,(1): 115-12.