By Susan Carnell Ph.D., published on May 1, 2010 - last reviewed on September 6, 2011
Ever made a one-cookie-a-day rule, then wolfed down an entire package? Socialized with a smoker and stamped out your attempt to quit? Met an ex for a drink and shared more than a martini? You may have fallen prey to a common resolution-killer: overestimating your own impulse control.
We break our resolutions for various reasons, including pushing our willpower "muscle" beyond its limits. Using willpower puts strain on the brain, depleting our glucose reserves and sapping our energy. This translates into weakened resistance and, at times, a handful of cookies in your mouth. Resisting two temptations simultaneously taxes our will even more. More than half of smokers told to resist chocolate brownies reached for a cigarette during a recess, compared with only a third in a different group given an easier task. Avoid willpower fatigue by setting manageable resolutions and tackling only one at a time. If you're giving up cigarettes, don't nix caffeine the same week.
Visceral urges can also fell our loftier ambitions. After a full lunch, students in a study assured researchers they'd resist candy later, but most cracked when faced with the afternoon munchies. Psychologists attribute this faulty forecasting to a "hot-cold empathy gap." Your "cold" contained self can't fully recall the feelings of your "hot" emotional self and inaccurately predicts how quickly you'll cave.
Try doing a mental "cooldown" to quench the moment of heat. If you feel a burst of passion for your ex, visualizing him snoring and dribbling may help you resist the urge to leap back into bed.
"Set up barriers between yourself and temptation," says Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University. A barrier might include avoiding people who lure you off your path. Merely thinking about a friend who exhibits poor self-control makes people give up 17 seconds earlier when told to squeeze a handgrip. If you're dieting and can't resist potato chips, bar them from the kitchen.
The most important control weapon? A humble view of your capabilities. Smokers who rate themselves bad controllers often avoid tempting situations when trying to quit. This precaution makes them more likely to kick the habit than overconfident "quitters" who don't use such safeguards.
"People often fail to appreciate the transformational force of cravings or sexual arousal," Nordgren says. "A realistic perception of one's capacity for self-restraint is ultimately the best approach."
The iPhone application "Bad Decision Blocker" shields you from temptation by deleting specified phone numbers for a night or a week—whatever it takes to stop drunk-dialing.