It’s a new year, which means I got out pen and paper to compile this year’s resolutions. Evidently, I’m not alone. Nearly half of us, according to author Tom Connellan (The 1 Percent Solution: How to Make Your Next 30 Days The Best Ever) will start trying to improve ourselves with New Year’s resolutions.
Here’s the bad news. A mere one week in, a quarter of us will have given up. By next year, only about 10 percent will have maintained the personal change they proposed on January 1.
Why? There are lots of ideas and opinions out there. Here are some of the most common:
We aim too high with unrealistic goals. Are you really going to visit the gym every day or finish a novel? Probably not. But you might floss before bed most every night.
We need rewards. Let’s say you work hard to lose a pound by the end of January. Is that small change reward enough? It feels too insignificant, which makes it too easy to backslide. So when you make even small positive changes, reward yourself with something that makes you happy…a movie, a new shirt. Whatever you choose, celebrate a little.
We try to change too many things at once. A list is bound to fail. Instead, pick a few things and focus on them. Make it a priority and take it one step at a time.
We expect too much too soon. The last time you tried to lose weight, I’ll bet you stepped on the scale one day later. That’s a recipe for disappointment. Instead, accept the idea that change is amazingly slow. Think of it this way. You don’t notice a child grow once a day. You don’t notice the length of your hair change day to day, either. But if you compare photos taken two months apart, the change is apparent. Accept that you won’t notice changes for a long time, and someone else will probably notice them before you do.
These lists go on and on, and there’s probably some truth to each and every entry. But there is some much more fascinating, scientific evidence to explain why resolutions are so hard to keep.
An article in the Wall Street Journal (Blame It On The Brain) by Jonah Lehrer (12/26/09) looked at contemporary research and mostly concluded that our failure to keep resolutions is simply a limitation of our overloaded prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of our brains that keeps us focused, handles short-term memory, and solves abstract problems. Think of it as a computer’s RAM that’s at capacity. And that little hourglass that pops up (the spinning colorwheel of death for Mac users) means you can’t add too many more tasks to the pile.
In the article, he cited a Stanford University study related to weight loss. Several undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was asked to remember a two-digit number, and the other group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were led to a table and offered a choice of either a healthy fruit salad or chocolate cake. The group trying to remember the seven-digit number was twice as likely to choose the cake. The professor running the study theorized that remembering the more difficult number took up more conscious brain space and taxed the prefontal cortex, resulting in reduced willpower.
The study suggests that willpower is limited rather than just a character issue. Think of it as a muscle that can tire out and one that needs sufficient energy to continue working efficiently.
Another cited study by Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, studied the self-control ability of two groups after one drank lemonade with real sugar and another drank a low-calorie sugar substitute. The group with the sugar performed much better, suggesting that willpower requires sufficient energy for success.
Ah, but what about weight loss, which might result in fewer energy calories? One could reasonably conclude that starving the brain of too many calories at once could make the overall task more difficult.
So considering that the brain is not an endless source of willpower, what’s a person with resolutions to do?
It seems to me that you should limit yourself to a single resolution or several very simple ones that take very little time and effort, such as flossing every day, taking your vitamins, or drinking enough water.
For the big ones, such as quitting smoking, losing weight or writing a novel, try focusing on just one. Work on it while you’re not overwhelmed with other tasks, and keep your energy up. In other words, think of your willpower as a brain muscle. Use it, exercise it, but try to not overburden it.
And maybe, just maybe, you can book that flight to Hawaii next December to celebrate your success.