New Year's resolutions usually last for weeks, if not days. Despite our good intentions, we drop our career goals, dieting aspirations, mindfulness practices or exercise regimens, and find ourselves unable to detach our backsides from the sofa and our hands from the chocolate.
There’s a scientific reason for this: We've basically got self-control fatigue. The good news, however, is that research also shows that keeping resolutions doesn’t have to be hard.
In a classic study by willpower psychologist Roy Baumeister, PhD, researchers baked chocolate chip cookies, filling their lab with a wonderful aroma. They then brought in research participants. Some participants were invited to eat the chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of chocolates laid out before them. Others were invited into the same delicious-smelling lab but told to eat the unappetizing radishes that were displayed right next to tempting cookies and chocolates.
Then, both groups were told to work on a puzzle that was, unbeknownst to them, unsolvable. The researchers found that participants who had exerted self-control by eating radishes and avoiding the tempting cookies and chocolates gave up trying to solve the puzzle much more quickly than those who had eaten the chocolates (or a control group that had not been shown the chocolates or radishes).
Why is this? Self-control actually exhausts us — it’s a limited resource. The more you use it, the less you have it. Researchers have found that it literally depletes your blood sugar. Ever wondered why you are more likely to binge on ice cream at night? Self-control literally gets depleted as the day goes on.
From dawn to dusk we do our best to:
- Control our impulses. This could mean staying on task as opposed to giving up or giving way to distractions (like checking Facebook) or temptations (like leaving work early to meet friends).
- Control our performance. This means persisting and giving your best despite feeling tired.
- Control our behavior and emotions. This could be maintaining a professional tone and demeanor even when the work atmosphere is unpleasant or your colleagues or managers make decisions you do not agree with.
- Control our thoughts. We fight to focus on our work despite the many daydreams, thoughts, and fantasies that pop into our minds.
(Emerging research now suggests that the depletion effect of self-control may not be as strong as has been claimed in the past. Nevertheless a substantial body of research has shown its effect, and the academic debate around depletion is ongoing.)
Here’s how to stop letting willpower fatigue get the best of you:
- Remember, the morning is golden. Self-control is stronger in the morning since you’ve had all night to replenish it. What does this mean? If you are resolving to exercise more, do it in the morning. If you are trying to stick to a diet, make your meals for the day, and make sure you throw everything that’s not on your diet out of the house. If your goal is to write a book or finish a huge work project (or do your taxes early for once!), set aside the first hours of the day to do so.
- Manage your energy by staying calmer. Staying calm makes you powerful. Research shows that Americans prefer “high-intensity” emotions like excitement, or even stress. Think about it: People drink coffee and wait until the last minute to do things because they depend on adrenaline to get their work done. The consequence of both excitement and stress, however, is that they fatigue the body. And the more tired you are, the less self-control you have. So, you need to manage your energy. You plug your cellphone in to charge it: Do the same thing with yourself. In particular, participate in activities that help you stay calm so you won’t get depleted so fast: yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises. Do this even if it means taking a break in the middle of the workday. Why? Research shows that when you do something like meditation or prayer — even for a short while — it can fill your self-control tank back up.
- Relax in other areas of your life. Don’t make too many resolutions or try to exert self-control in too many new areas of your life at once. Keep things easy and relaxed in some domains (e.g., let the house be messy) so you’re not draining yourself by employing self-control in every aspect of your life and at all times of the day. Choose where self-control is important (e.g., at work) and give yourself some slack in the rest of your life.
- Focus on the end goal. As neuroscientist Elliott Berkman, PhD, points out, “when you are working on things you really want to be working on, you are less likely to become depleted.” He argues that if you remember what the end goal of your resolution is — presumably — something you want, you can muster up the energy it takes to exert that self-control.
By following these tips, you’ll see that it is possible to keep your resolutions, to have more willpower, and to achieve your goals. So go ahead and make the most of those mornings, stay chill, cut yourself some slack, and keep your eyes on the prize.
Emma Seppala, PhD, is associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and a research psychologist at the School of Medicine. She is also a certified yoga, pilates, breath work and meditation instructor, and she recently published the book The Happiness Track. A version of this piece originally appeared on Psychology Today.
Previously: Advice for changing health behavior: “Think like a designer", Resolution check-in with a Stanford psychologist, one week into the new year, Boosting willpower and breaking bad habits and The science of willpower
Photo by georgios kaleadis