New Year is a time for fresh starts and good intentions, but what governs our ability to see them through? Polly Dunbar explores how we can put a positive spin on the way we eat, think and live – starting with the science of willpower
Time for change? Sticking to your New Year resolutions requires willpower – and plenty of it
Every year, I make the same resolution: to go to the gym three times a week and finally transform my fitness levels. And every year, I manage it for four weeks before I slip back into my usual routine of the occasional spin or yoga class, disappointed in myself for not doing more. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve looked enviously at friends who seem blessed with a single-minded determination – friends who decide to run a marathon, then actually train and go through with it – and wondered why I can’t stick to my goals.
Willpower is a mysterious quality. Some people appear to have it; others seem to have little or none. It’s having the self-control to carry out our decisions, even in the face of temptation – whether to slob out on the sofa with a glass of wine in front of Netflix (instead of doing that evening class) or light another cigarette (when you’ve vowed to quit).
The ability to use this kind of self-discipline has a profound effect on our lives. The iconic ‘marshmallow test’, created in the 60s by psychologist Walter Mischel, involved children being offered a choice between one marshmallow immediately, or two if they could resist eating the first one for 15 minutes. The children who exercised control later went on to perform better at school and were deemed to be healthier and more popular. Why? Because people who can control their minds using ‘cool’ (or calm) strategies are generally more adept at solving problems than those who use ‘hot’ (or emotional and impulsive) strategies, making ‘cool’ thinkers more likely to be successful.
However, despite knowing the rewards this strength of character can bring, many of us find our willpower deserts us when we need it. A recent poll revealed that 63 per cent of those who had made a New Year’s resolution last year had broken it, with 43 per cent of respondents lasting less than a month. If it feels as though some of us simply have less resolve than others, it’s because we do. ‘The amount of willpower we have is down to a combination of factors, including a small genetic component,’ explains clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd. ‘Our upbringing plays a large part, too. If [our parents] gave us what we wanted, whenever we wanted it, we would never learn that there are benefits to waiting, and [as a result], we wouldn’t develop willpower. It’s also affected by the events that shape us throughout our lives. If we become used to seeing a reward when we defer our gratification – for instance, when we work hard on a long-term project – our brains get used to focusing on the goal and we’re less likely to give in to the primitive part of us that wants results now.’
This battle between the part of our brain that is governed by impulsive desires and the part that is more considered, is where willpower should come into play. It’s often thwarted by the fact that as much as 40 per cent of our behaviour is habitual, which means we do it routinely, often unconsciously. Habitual behaviour is difficult to break because we don’t pause before doing it. By pausing, we allow the brain a chance to compare the long-term goal to the short-term kick – giving up smoking for the sake of our health, for instance. Without this pause, willpower never has a chance to kick in. Bad habits plague the majority of us, even those who show excellent resolve in other parts of our lives. Most people have at least one area in which they wish their willpower was stronger; perhaps they’re extremely successful at work, but struggle to stick to a diet. Psychologists believe this could be because willpower actually comes in limited supply.
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‘It’s like a muscle that gets tired,’ explains Ben Fletcher, professor of occupational and health psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. ‘If we’ve been using it all day to avoid distractions and focus on work, we’re more likely to give in to our impulses later.’ Pouring a glass of Merlot and ordering a take-away seems like a good option when we get home.
Our friends, partners and colleagues also have a significant impact, making us more or less likely to stick to our resolutions. ‘If you have a set of goals but the people around you are doing something different, it’s obviously a lot harder to succeed,’ says Dr Hibberd. ‘Studies have shown that we’re much less aware of our own goals when we’re with someone else, which is why it’s more difficult to do Dry January if your partner isn’t on board, too.’
But there is good news. ‘Conversely, being around people who are self-disciplined can help our own levels of control. So much of willpower is linked to self-awareness and how aware we are of the choices we make. Anything that helps us pay more attention to what we’re doing and monitor whether it’s helping us to achieve our long-term goals, improves our motivation and, in turn, our willpower.’
However, regardless of our childhoods or the people around us, the instant-gratification culture we live in has put intense pressure on even the most iron-willed of us. After all, waiting is no longer part of our collective vocabulary. If we want something – whether it’s the latest season of Orange Is The New Black, a new dress before pay day or even sex – then we can get it; if not instantly, then in a matter of hours.
Social media has also had an impact. Being bombarded with seemingly perfect bodies and lives on Instagram actually has a demotivating, rather than inspiring, effect. ‘Comparison to others triggers stress, a direct obstacle to willpower,’ says Dr Hibberd. ‘Self-criticism makes us feel less motivated, while studies show being kinder to ourselves increases our chances of sticking to something. We have constant distractions now, which make it harder to have the self-awareness we need to exercise willpower.’
So if we think our own resolve is lacking, what can we do? Well, it turns out we can boost willpower with practice. Studies show that when volunteers are given small, regular self-control challenges for a week or two – such as sitting up straight when they catch themselves slouching – their willpower increases. Meditation is believed to help, too – research shows that after three days of practising meditation for ten minutes, the brain is able to focus better on goals.
However, some psychologists believe self-control is a red herring when it comes to making real changes to our lives. Professor Fletcher has developed a system called Do Something Different to help people break old habits and form new ones. He believes focusing on willpower just increases our stress and frustration when we fail, and says the key to changing our behaviour lies in what we actually do. He suggests spending 15 days making small changes, such as sleeping on the opposite side of the bed or taking a different route to work, to challenge our unconscious behaviour and force us to make conscious decisions. ‘It’s important to tackle all your habit patterns, not just the core thing you’re trying to change,’ he says. ‘You’ll stop living on autopilot, which will make bigger changes much easier. It works because it breaks your associations. For instance, if you change the first thing you do when you get home, it breaks the pattern of your whole evening, so you’re less inclined to pour that glass of wine or eat that cheese.’
New research in the US suggests that when people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re far more likely to pursue personal goals. So perhaps the key isn’t how strong our resolve really is, but the way we think about it.
How to boost your willpower in 4 easy steps
Struggling to stick to your goals? Dr Hibberd reveals the hot hacks she teaches her clients
1. Focus on why, not how
Instead of compiling a list of your goals, write down the reasons you want to achieve them. For example, ‘I want to feel stronger and have more energy’, instead of ‘I must go to the gym three times a week’. Recognising your motivation helps you commit to the positive outcome, rather than concentrating on the hard work it might take to get there.
2. Try a new route to work
Introducing small changes to your daily routine disrupts your unconscious habit patterns, shifting you out of autopilot and forcing the brain to start making conscious decisions about what you want.
3. Keep a ‘choices’ diary
Being aware of the choices you make each day is key. To stay on track, maintain a log, noting down which decisions helped you to reach your goal – and which didn’t. This will help to identify your behavioural triggers and correct them.
4. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Studies show self-criticism can lead to less self-control, so boost willpower by being kind to yourself, especially when you’ve failed.