Here we are, more than halfway through the first month of the new year…so how are the resolutions holding up in the face of the real world? With ~88% of all resolutions ending in failure (according to a 2007 study by Robert Wiseman), don’t be surprised if you’re hitting a few bumps in the road.
I just read a great Wall Street Journal online article “Blame it on the Brain,” by Jonah Lehrer, that discusses the reasons behind “willpower failures”—and some strategies for improving your likelihood of success. Here are some of the take-homes from the article, but I highly recommend reading the entire piece yourself:
- Willpower is a limited resource—like a muscle, it can only handle a certain amount of challenge.
- The part of the brain responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is also responsible “keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems”. That means that if you have to remember something or focus on another subject, you will have less available “willpower muscle.” (Check out the article for the effects of remembering 2 digits versus 7 digits on willpower…pretty cool stuff!)
- Since willpower is limited, the classic “New Year’s Resolutions” method of self-improvement is doomed to fail. Rather than choosing five aspects of your life to improve simultaneously, if you focus on one you’re more likely to succeed.
- Willpower uses actual energy—decreases the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. That means that exerting willpower requires a well-fed brain.
- Practicing self-discipline in one area—such as incorporating a daily writing or exercise regimen—makes it easier to practice willpower elsewhere. In other words, it looks like your willpower muscle, like your bicep, can be strengthened through exercise.
How are you doing on your New Year’s Resolutions? If you’re having trouble, you may be trying to do too much at once. Changing a habit or routine requires a lot of willpower—so pick one battle at a time and recognize that willpower is limited—and try again.
As for me—this article feels like an explanation of why my resolutions to eat better and exercise more are more successful this year than ever before. I’d already established the habit of tracking what I eat, one habit in my quest for a healthier lifestyle; and I’d already established a habit of intermittent exercise (if a habit can be intermittent!) This January, I really only added one habit to my life: getting up earlier for a daily walk or run. And I’m sticking with it.
That makes me happy :). Good luck with whatever changes you want to make in 2010!