Is there something you’d like to accomplish next year? According to one study, you’re ten times more likely to accomplish it if you make it a New Year’s resolution.
Even so, John Tierney, co-author of the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (written with Psychologist Roy Baumeister), predicts that by the end of January, a third of resolutions will be broken, and by July the number will jump to more than half. In the end, only 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions are likely to succeed in keeping them.
What sets apart those who keep their resolutions from those who don’t? Willpower.
“That’s obvious,” you sigh. “But how do I muster the willpower to keep my New Year’s resolutions?”
Paradoxically, people with the best self-control are those who use it least often. In other words, people who succeed in using willpower manage to structure their lives so they aren’t constantly tempted. It turns out that each time we use our willpower (having an apple instead of a bag of chips; getting exercise instead of sitting all day; going to sleep on time instead of checking email...), we chip away at our store of willpower. The more times each day we’re required to use self-control, the less of it we have left.
Tierney explains, “…willpower is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control.” If we have to exert too much self control, we suffer what Baumeister calls “ego-depletion,” a kind of willpower fatigue. (This is particularly tricky for dieters since self-control is powered by blood sugar. In other words, the more dieters restrict their food intake, the less glucose they have in their bloodstream, and the less willpower they have to stick to a diet.)
There are a few critical strategies that increase the odds of sticking to New Year’s resolutions. The first key is to look at your list of goals, and pick one. Whatever your resolution, you’re more likely to succeed if you have only one. This gives you a better chance of conserving enough self-control to succeed. (In other words, it’s not a great idea to resolve to quit watching TV, become gluten-free, and write the great American novel all at the same time.)
The second trick is to create a clear, specific goal that you can measure along the way. For example, if your goal is to get regular exercise, your specific goal could be to go to the gym three times a week. If your goal is to get more sleep, your specific goal could be to get in bed and turn out the lights by 9:30 PM three times a week.
Now spend a minute and visualize yourself in the first week of January. Look around and spot the temptations that will derail you. Instead of merely resolving to withstand those temptations, see what you can do to arrange your daily life so you won’t have to face them.
For example, if your resolution is to spend less time on devices, put them where you can’t easily access them (or have someone you live with hide them from you for a scheduled period each day). If you want to stop eating junk food, don’t keep junk food in the house, and take the long route to the office garage so you don’t pass the vending machines. If your plan is to switch to decaf, don’t keep caffeine in the house. (If you must keep tempting things in the house because you live with someone who isn’t on the same program, see if he or she will stash the contraband somewhere you won’t find it.) These strategies represent what psychologists call “self-binding.” Like Odysseus having his men bind him to the mast of the ship so he could hear the song of the Sirens without crashing the ship, self-binding allows your current self to “bind” your future self to the course you want, and prevents you from losing your way when your willpower wanes.
If you have someone to regularly share your progress with, you’re more likely to succeed. If you have a “referee”—someone who holds you accountable, you’re even more likely to succeed. And people who add a financial penalty are the most successful. For example, if your specific goal is to go to the gym 3 times a week, you could promise your referee that in every week in which you don’t go to the gym 3 times, you will make a $50 donation to the political candidate you dislike the most.
If you truly want to stick to your New Year’s resolution, here are the three things that will improve your chances of succeeding:
1) Have a clear and specific goal
2) Find a referee to hold you accountable
3) Create a painful financial penalty
If you do these three things, according to research, chances are good you’ll stay on track.