Another year, another list of resolutions that probably won’t last until February. Sources estimate that only 12 percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions actually meet their goals. Whether you commit to losing twenty pounds, cook at home more frequently, or quit a smoking habit, it seems the (neurological) cards are stacked against you. Indeed, a canon of “research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited.” Essentially, the prefrontal cortex has so many other important day-to-day tasks to focus on, quitting bad habits or implementing new ones often falls by the wayside.
When we are mentally, physically, and emotionally overtaxed, we are more likely to succumb to temptation. One study, conducted by Baba Shiv, presented subjects with a memory task; one group’s task was significantly harder than the other group’s. Following the task, they were given the choice between chocolate cake and fruit salad. Those who performed the more difficult memory task were much more likely to choose the chocolate cake. Shiv concluded that, “if processing resources are limited, spontaneously evoked affective reactions rather than cognitions tend to have a greater impact on choice.” In other words, the harder task burdened the participants with an increased “cognitive load — making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert.”
Furthermore, not only do quotidian responsibilities interfere with our decision-making process, the very act of self-control depletes self-control, making you more likely to give in to that donut next time, after denying yourself this time. Mark Muraven explains, “One reason for these failures may be that exerting self-control depletes a limited resource (ego-depletion) that is necessary for the success of self-control. Hence, after exerting self-control individuals are less able resist temptations, fight urges, or stop a behavior which results in a loss of self-control.” And when we take into consideration that ego-depletion occurs “anytime an individual overrides, inhibits, stops, or changes a mood, urge, thought or behavior,” we begin to get a clearer picture of just how limited our willpower really is.
All this is not to say that following through with your resolutions is impossible. It may well be that ego-depletion, if well managed, can lead to increased inner power. If only one in ten did it, so can you! Here is a list of tips that can increase your chance of success.
Focus on only one goal at a time
“Bad habits are hard to break — and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once.” This logically follows the research expounded above. The prefrontal cortex already has enough on its plate, so aiming to hit the gym five times a week and volunteer more is often just setting oneself up for failure.
This one may be particularly counterintuitive to those implementing a diet plan as a resolution. The brain relies heavily on glucose as an energy source, and this appears to be especially true for the areas associated with self control. Research shows that, “Acts of self-control deplete relatively large amounts of glucose. Self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilized effectively to the brain (i.e., when insulin is low or insensitive). Restoring glucose to a sufficient level typically improves self-control.” All this is to say that eating well and often literally fuels our capacity for self-control.
Several studies have shown that focusing on the positive and likable aspects of yourself can help to facilitate some goals, including quitting smoking and eating healthier. Dr. Alex Korb explains the reason for this: “… Bad habits reside in a deep, unconscious region of the brain called the basal ganglia … The key for changing your bad habits is that self-affirmation boosts the prefrontal cortex’s ability to override the basal ganglia.”
Set implementation intentions
Peter M. Gollwitzer and colleagues explain, “Implementation intentions are if-then plans that spell out in advance how one wants to strive for a set goal. For the if-component, a critical cue is selected (e.g., a good opportunity, an anticipated obstacle) that is linked to a goal-directed response in the then-component.” Studies have shown this method to be effective in goal achievement, probably “because strong links between the situation and response are created in your mind.”
Utilize the Fogg behavior model
B.J. Fogg, founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, has proposed a novel model for understanding human behavior changes. He argues that “three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger.” He’s designed a grid with fifteen distinct behavior changes, which you can view here. Realizing this may be a bit complex for laypeople, he has also created an interactive wizard, where you can answer a series of questions in order to determine which behavior path you should follow.
Strengthen your willpower muscle
Finally, in spite of research that suggests using self-control depletes self-control, it’s not impossible to slowly become better at exercising willpower over a period of time. Roy F. Baumeister — who first discovered this willpower fatigue conducted a series of experiments to demonstrate this. “He enrolled students in regimens that required them to keep track of their eating, exercise regularly, use a mouse with their weaker hand or (one that really gave them a workout) speak in complete sentences and without swearing. After several weeks, the students were more resistant to ego depletion in the lab and showed greater self-control in their lives.” To implement this in your own life, stick to baby steps stretched out of a period of time, and be mindful of those times when you are overwhelmed or “depleted.”
In this spirit, we can both remember our failed resolutions of years past — and try again this year — equipped with these new tools in our arsenal.