It is tempting, when your shiny New Year’s resolutions start to crumble, to tell yourself that self-control simply isn’t your strong point. “Oh well,” you might say, surrendering to the desire for a large glass of red. “No willpower, that’s my problem.”
But, according to a body of scientific research, willpower is not a talent that a lucky few are born with. It is a skill to be practised. “Willpower is a dynamic, fluctuating resource,” explains Frank Ryan, consultant clinical psychologist and author of Willpower for Dummies. “Our level of willpower fluctuates according to our motivation in any given situation. Everybody can learn to use their willpower more effectively.“
Even if you are not trying to turn over a new leaf for the new year, cultivating willpower is a good idea, as the psychologist Walter Mischel demonstrated in the 1960s and 70s. In his famous study, a group of four-year-olds were offered the choice of one sweet treat now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. Their performance was then monitored into adulthood. The “high delayers” went on to achieve greater academic success, better health and lower divorce rates. So there is more at stake than whether or not you make it to the end of Dry January.
Here are a few ways to increase your chances.
To maximise our chances of sticking to resolutions, Ryan says, we should identify our “willpower profile. For example: some people are more impulsive than others. That does come down to personality.”
Introverts tend to get energised by thoughts and ideas, so if that’s you, you should find it easier to get motivated by an inner vision than extroverts, who get fired up by people and social approval. For introverts, scheduling time to reflect on your progress, such as keeping a diary, can be helpful. For extroverts, signing up for a group such as Parkrun or Weight Watchers where everyone has a common goal can help you to strengthen your resolve, as can sharing even small progress with others.
“You need to learn the core skills to cope with triggers and cues that activate your reward-seeking response,” Ryan adds. “It’s about coping with temptation, which often comes from the environment: the people, places or things that act as motivational magnets to challenge your willpower.” In other words: if you are trying to avoid cake, it is probably best to find a route home that swerves the artisanal doughnuts.
Make a plan
A study published by the British Journal of Health Psychology found that 91% of participants who wrote down a plan of when and where to exercise successfully met their goals. “Planning is important because the brain builds a story. It also likes order and the feeling of being in control,” explains the neuroscientist and coach Magdalena Bak-Maier of maketimecount.com. “If you don’t have a cognitive map, a representation in the mind of how you are going to achieve it, then there is no way to sustain your goal.”
She points out that our brains are lazy and like to conserve energy, so regular reminders and visual clues can be helpful. “I have a goal that I want to do 100 push-ups a day,” she confides. “It sounds like a good goal but it’s not enough to nudge me into action. In order to build it into my mind’s priority list, I leave Post-It notes around my house. As I walk in the door, there’s a cartoon of me doing push-ups. In the kitchen, there’s another one. Whenever I see one, I stop and do the push-ups.”
We need to be more strategic in our planning, she says. “You might have announced: ‘This year I’m going to write a novel’ or ‘I’m going to run a half-marathon,’ but that hasn’t given the brain anything to work with. Those are just ideas, not plans.”
To clarify, a plan is: “I’m going to get up at 6.30am Monday to Friday and write 500 words of my screenplay before I leave for work.” Or: “I’m going to sign up for 10 yoga classes and go every Monday at 6pm.”
Pick one goal at a time
One problem with the resolution fever that grips us at this time of year is the temptation to go for a total life overhaul. “This year I’m going to give up alcohol, meet The One and get a promotion.” You are doing really well on all fronts. But then one evening you bump into an attractive colleague at the bus stop. “Fancy a drink?” Next morning, you have to deal with a blinding hangover and an unusually demanding boss.
What can you do about such conflicts? Don’t work on multiple resolutions. A psychological study published by the Journal of Consumer Research showed that intentions are most effective when you work on only one goal at a time. People who tried to work on a number of intentions at once were ultimately less successful at sticking to their plans.
Face your fears
“People who are not moving towards their goal are often afraid of something they envisage happening as a result of achieving the goal,” says Bak-Maier. “I really struggled to finish my third book. Yes, it’s a great thing to aim for; I really wanted to do it. Eventually, I realised that I was subconsciously afraid of the book failing and no one buying it. Worse, once it was written, I knew I’d have to go out and market it. I dread marketing.” If in any doubt, Bak-Maier recommends paying attention to “somatic responses”, such as feeling mysteriously tired, achey or queasy, when faced with taking action on your goal. Chances are good that you might be too anxious to pursue it.
Spend willpower wisely
Long-established research by the psychologist Roy Baumeister suggested that willpower is a finite resource that runs out after prolonged use. Although recent studies have challenged Baumeister’s findings, the concept, known as ego depletion, is still a useful one to bear in mind. Imagine you have planned to go to the gym after work even though you have had a gruelling day at the office and a grim commute. Instead, you spend the evening slumped on the couch chomping crisps. You’ve earned it, right? That is ego depletion in action.
What this means is that you should be discerning about how you use your willpower reserves. Go to the gym or start writing that screenplay early in the day, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a morning person. Why? Because, unfortunately, the brain does not compartmentalise tasks that require uncomfortable effort. There is no special brain area marked “willpower for writing”. If you spend hours agreeing with your boss in a tedious meeting (it takes more willpower to suppress your views than to express them freely), don’t be surprised that you mysteriously have no energy for your own goals later.
The upside of all types of willpower stemming from the same mental reservoir appears to be that if you strengthen willpower in one area, it will also positively impact other, unrelated behaviour. Australian researchers assigned volunteers to a two-month exercise regime. Those who stuck to it also reported smoking and drinking less, curbing their spending and improving study habits.
Find your motivation
It seems we all hold some willpower back in reserve. Researcher Mark Muraven found that study participants suddenly discovered extra self-control to do a task after they were told they would be paid for their effort, or that their effort would benefit others, such as helping to find a cure for a disease. So knowing your “why” can help you to get out of bed for a chilly morning run.
Meet your future self
According to Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Willpower Instinct, one reason people fail is that they view their future self as a stranger. That explains why it is so difficult to save for a pension; it feels like handing over your hard-earned cash to someone you’ve never met.
“People who feel close to, caring toward, and similar to their future selves are more likely to invest in their wellbeing,” says McGonigal.
Psychologists at the University of Liège in Belgium examined people’s ability to generate vivid “self-defining” future memories. This involves reflecting upon the most important aspects of your life and contemplating how you would like them to turn out, regardless of what challenges you are dealing with in the present. It may sound like magical thinking but the researchers found that the ability to generate such “memories” was crucial for experiencing a sense of self-continuity, a vital component in taking action on our goals.
Learn from setbacks
Set a distinction between a lapse and a relapse, says Ryan. “Say you go back to smoking every day for a month; that’s a relapse. But if you have an occasional cigarette, use that as a learning experience. Ask yourself: ‘Why did I smoke that time? I went out with my mates, we had a bit to drink, then I had a cigarette outside the pub because they were all smoking.’ Label that as a risk. ‘What will I do next time? Next time I’ll be more on my guard, I’ll say I’ve given up, so I’m not going to join you, I’ll just stay inside.’ Very simple strategies for what’s known as an implementation plan.”
Don’t be discouraged
Finally, be kind to yourself. “Anticipate lapses and plan for them,” says Ryan. “Don’t blame yourself. Be compassionate when you have a setback. Reward yourself for effort, not outcomes. Changing habits, or establishing new ones, is a motivational marathon, with inevitable trips along the way.” Some of the more Calvinist-minded among us might balk at this. Surely we must suffer on the road to success? “If you’re feeling negative and self-critical, that actually reduces your willpower,” says Ryan. “Feeling negative and emotionally charged drains your willpower battery. Negative moods are the enemy of willpower, and self-blame is the main culprit.”