The Surprising Reason You’re Already Failing at Your New Year’s Resolutions

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on February 24, 2015 • views: 926

new year's resolutionsHow’s it going with those New Year’s resolutions?
Are you still working on them?

Odds are, you aren’t—or it won’t be long before you forget about them.

A study from the University of Scranton reported that just eight percent of people are successful in achieving their resolutions.

If this is happening to you already, relax—you’re not to blame.

Not completely, anyway.

Turns out there are two ways to make New Year’s resolutions, and only one of them is likely to lead to lasting, healthy changes.

The secret?

It’s all about willpower—and the fact that each of us has a limited supply.

Willpower is Like a Muscle—Easily Fatigued

We tend to blame ourselves when we don’t stick to our resolutions. We start out with great intentions, but within weeks we’ve stacked up a few failures, and it’s not long afterwards that many of us give up.

We say we just don’t have the willpower. The truth is, we do—just in limited supply.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), we exert willpower every day, probably a lot more than we realize. We resist the urge to go back to sleep when the alarm goes off. We skip the morning donut and choose a bowl of oatmeal, instead. We hold our tongue when we’d really like to give the boss a piece of our mind.

Each time we resist temptation, we exercise our willpower. We think we have an unlimited supply, but the truth is, willpower is like a muscle. As we use it, it gets tired.

This may explain why it’s easier to avoid the morning donut than the afternoon piece of cake, or why many of us succumb to late-night munchies.

Is It All In Our Heads?

Several studies have theorized that self-control saps our resources. In 2007, for example, research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that self-control requires a good amount of body fuel in the form of glucose. This may be why we crave a candy bar after finishing a long report at work, for example. Once we’ve replenished our stores, we tend to be stronger, again.

More recent research seems to negate this conclusion, theorizing that how much willpower we have is actually all in our minds.

In a 2013 study, for example, researchers found that people who believed their willpower was limited were better able to resist temptation only after consuming a sugary drink. People who believed willpower was abundant, however, experienced no benefit from the sugary drink.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Few would deny that a lack of sleep, a poor diet, stress, and other factors deplete willpower and make it more difficult to stick with our resolutions. At the same time, we can improve our behaviors when we set our minds to it, whether it’s the end of the day or not.

The Secret to Achieving Your Resolutions

While the researchers continue to battle it out, we can use their findings to increase our odds of reaching our goals. The secret is—we have to know ourselves.

Generally speaking, we have two options:

  1. Decide what we’re going to do without considering our ability to resist temptation.
  2. Decide what we’re going to do after we evaluate our ability to resist temptation.

Option number two is the only way to success!

How well do you resist temptation, on the whole? When is your weakest time of day or night? When are you strongest and most likely to do what you set your mind to?

Once you have the answers to these questions, try the following seven steps and see if you don’t have better luck making the changes you want to make in your life.

  1. Put exercise at your strongest time of day: Most of us are at our strongest in the morning, after a good night’s rest. Schedule your walk, run, or other exercise routine first thing so you’re less likely to blow it off. Exercise at your lunch hour at the very latest. If exercise helps you relax, schedule it for right after work—but if you find yourself neglecting it, change your schedule.
  2. Reduce temptation: We all wear down as we get tired, so set up your kitchen to reduce temptation. Get rid of high-calorie, high-sugar foods so they’re not in your house, and fill your fridge and cupboards with healthy treats instead.
  3. Don’t give yourself an “out”: It helps if you plan your week out ahead of time. Decide when you’re going to exercise and what you’re going to eat (or whatever applies to your resolutions), and then make your word law. The fewer decisions you have to make through the week, the stronger your willpower will be.
  4. Make it easy: A lot of morning runners will set their running shoes and clothes by their bed the night before, so all they have to is slip into them the next morning. Some people sign up for weekly deliveries of organic veggies so they’re more likely to cook and use them. Find ways to make your resolution easier to  accomplish.
  5. Set small goals and celebrate: Don’t expect to lose ten pounds in the first week. Set small goals—one pound a week, for example— and then celebrate your accomplishments. This will give your willpower the boost it needs to recover.
  6. Do one thing each week that you don’t feel like doing: According to a 2013 study, we can “develop” willpower like pumping up a muscle. How? Each week, make yourself do something that’s good for you, but that you don’t really want to do. Just once is enough. Celebrate your accomplishment, and do it again the next week. Gradually, you’ll get stronger!
  7. Take a “rest” day: Schedule one day a week to rest your willpower. On that day, don’t do anything you don’t want to—if possible! Not one thing. Do only what you want to do (within reason, of course!). You’ll be amazed at how restorative that one day can be.

Are you having trouble sticking to your resolutions? Do you think willpower has something to do with it?

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Comments (4)

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  1. Chere Hagopian says:

    This is a great post! I’m going to try these suggestions. I love the idea of a rest day. No willpower needed! I already take one day a week off of all work, but I do a mountain of laundry that day. I also really like number six, doing one thing a week that I really don’t feel like doing. Just working seems to exhaust my willpower muscle. It could use a workout on something besides work!

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Chere! Yes, work definitely does use up the willpower, doesn’t it? We have to resist all those other things we’d rather be doing! Thanks for our input. :O)

  2. Donna Cook says:

    Great post, and so true! I’ve learned the only way to avoid sweets in the afternoon is to make sure I don’t have them in the house to start with. Thus, the only time I really have to be strong willed is in the store. 🙂

    I think #5 is an important one. It could be rephrased as “be realistic.” I think often we set lofty goals, without considering what our daily lives will have to look like in order to accomplish them. I think if we’re able to balance our long-term goals with the short term, we’re more likely to succeed. I wrote about this concept on my blog as I was setting my own goals for the year. ( The Goal-Setting Question You Don’t Want to Forget to Ask) I tend to get too ambitious, then when I have to scale things down it feels like a failure, when really, I was just making my goals more realistic and sustainable over the long haul.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Donna! Yes, and much easier in the store as long as you don’t shop hungry! (I’ve been guilty of that a few times…)

      Good point on scaling down when you need to–much better than giving up. Love the “brick by brick” saying—it always helps me when thinking of long-term goals. Thanks for the input!