By Chris Berdik
December 31, 2012
Every year about this time, I write a list of New Year's resolutions. It's the usual stuff: Work out three times a week, cut back on coffee and alcohol, floss daily, relearn Spanish, watch less television, etc. I then put the list in the drawer of my bedside table, where it remains until I take it out a year later and laugh at my lack of progress.
I'm not alone. The enthusiasm with which Americans make New Year's resolutions is matched only by our chronic inability to see them through. Gyms are packed in January but clear out by March. According to surveys, only about 10% of resolutions survive a full year. There's no shortage of good advice on how to bolster willpower, including one piece I'd be smart to take: Don't hide your resolutions in a drawer.
Other ideas include keeping goals realistic, planning how they'll be implemented and enlisting the help of friends and family for encouragement and accountability. These are all helpful tips, but there's one important thing missing: belief. Specifically, recent studies suggest that when it comes to willpower, we get what we expect.
The new findings fly in the face of previous thinking about willpower, which tended to put the emphasis on power. In this way of looking at things, willpower was seen as a muscle that was easily depleted. Newer research casts doubt on this limited-resource theory and instead suggests that we have as much willpower as we expect to have. In this alternative model, willpower works less like a muscle and more like a placebo.
This matters, because willpower's importance goes well beyond keeping New Year's promises. Indeed, researchers find that willpower (or self-regulation) also predicts academic, professional and financial success better than IQ and other aptitude scores. People with lots of willpower work harder, avoid tempting distractions and persist until a task is completed.
In a 2010 study led by Swiss psychologist Veronika Job when she was at Stanford University, only people who believed that willpower was limited (according to an initial questionnaire) showed evidence of depleted willpower in tests of self-control given after a mentally challenging lab task. Subjects who believed that willpower was unlimited did just as well on follow-up self-control tasks as control subjects facing the task fresh.
When the researchers manipulated people into believing that willpower was limited or unlimited by biasing the initial questionnaire, they performed better or worse depending on their belief in the durability of willpower. And the same pattern held outside the lab. The researchers surveyed college students about their willpower beliefs and then, at various points in the semester, asked about their TV, procrastination and junk-food habits. There were no significant behavioral differences until the stress of final exams, when students who believed that willpower was limited were much more likely to put off pressing work and eat unhealthy snacks.
Another common belief about willpower is that it is taxing — that exercising self-control or willpower burns a lot of energy. But does it? Not according to Robert Kurzban, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist. In a 2010 paper, he noted that the entire brain uses one-quarter of one calorie per minute, on average, and brain scan studies show that only a fraction of the brain is more active when people exercise self-control. As Kurzban noted, people actually perform better on self-control tasks after vigorous exercise, which burns far more calories than self-regulation does.
None of this means that keeping resolutions will be easy. But willpower is most likely to let us down if we expect it to. Take care with your list of resolutions for 2013. Narrow it to the goals you really care about. Make a plan. Get the support of your loved ones. Seek out accountability. For God's sake, don't stuff the list in a drawer. And last, but certainly not least, have faith in your willpower.
Give yourself reasons to believe, despite the sorry statistics and even your own track record. Think back on the many challenges you have mastered, especially when you stumbled along the way. If your goal is important enough to you, chances are you can achieve it, and a little more faith in your willpower could help.
Chris Berdik is a freelance journalist in Boston and the author of "Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations."
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