Want to Keep That Resolution? Stop Relying on Willpower to Build Healthy Habits

 In Habits, Health

Your New Year’s Resolutions are doomed… if your plan is to use willpower and white knuckles to create healthy habits. This works better.

As the holidays wrap up, we tend to get a little discouraged. The bacchanalian excesses are over, leaving us morose about our growing waistlines and neglected task lists. We vow to build healthy habits in the new year. This prompts many of us to engage in a time-honored tradition: the making of New Year’s resolutions.

Sadly, this strategy is actually a pretty lame one. About 41 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. But only about 9 percent of people report having achieved that resolution. That’s 9 percent of 41 percent or roughly 3.7 percent of total Americans who actually stick to their proposed healthy habits. Bummer, right?

Doubtless, many contributing factors exist when it comes to falling off the wagon. But research shows that one of the biggest is expecting to suddenly, miraculously have more willpower this year. Simply put, people who rely on a massive influx of new fortitude aren’t likely to be among the very small percentage of people who achieve their resolutions.

Don’t want to be one of the resolution-makers left out in the cold? Then it’s time to stop waiting for the willpower gods to smile on you, and time to start making plans. By putting “guardrails” on your resolution, you can turn a vague hope into truly healthy habits. Who doesn’t want that?

Let’s get started.

Healthy Habits

Willpower: It’s Not Going to Get Better on Its Own

When we’re younger, we tend to believe that age brings wisdom and willpower. The truth, however, is a bit less rosy. Every individual has a “cool” system that regulates impulse by using reason and logic. This system might say, “If I go check social media instead of working now, I won’t be as happy as if I just keep working.” True.

On the other hand, each individual is also responsible for reacting to “hot” stimuli. See chocolate cake, eat chocolate cake. Every single person since the Buddha knows that feeling (and come to think of it, so did he). The cool system constantly does battle with hot stimuli, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. When we win more than we lose, our willpower is considered strong. When we lose more often, we view this as having weak willpower.

Now, here’s the rub: Your innate level of willpower is probably pretty ingrained. Concluding a study testing willpower, researchers reported that “Amazingly, the subjects’ willpower differences had largely held up over four decades. In general, children who were less successful all those years ago did worse on the self-control task as adults. An individual’s sensitivity to so-called hot stimuli, it seems, may persist throughout his or her lifetime.”

Are you doomed to throwing up your hands and spending the rest of your life eating cake and scrolling through Facebook? Just know that the research doesn’t end there.

Willpower: The Muscle You Didn’t Know You Had

Willpower is best considered a muscle. While you might start with an inherent amount of it, that doesn’t mean it can’t get stronger with use. Some people are born with a sturdier bone structure and beefier muscles, for instance. But that doesn’t mean a skinny-yet-dedicated gym rat can’t bulk up.

Ditto willpower. Even if you are on the lower end of the spectrum naturally (and you may very well not be), you can increase this muscle simply by using it. Just as you might lift weights three times a week to increase muscle mass, you can routinely “work out” with your willpower muscle.

Some of the strategies are pretty obvious. The more often you exercise healthy habits, for instance, the easier it is to keep them. Making your bed, flossing, packing a lunch, taking the dog for a walk or turning out the light ten. These are all examples of activities that, done every day, can help you strengthen that muscle.

There are odder ones, too. “Multiple studies have illustrated that when you exercise self-control in one area of your life, such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, you can exert more willpower in another area, such as suppressing aggressive behavior. The two behaviors may be very different, but they share a common energy source.”

In other words, stick with an activity that is not inherently comfortable. By doing so you, learn to control yourself in other ways. Go for that run, resist that angry impulse, walk past the break room donuts.

Want to move beyond the brushing-your-teeth-weirdly stage? There’s good news. Studies show that some different strategies can help you overcome a lack of willpower. Here are a few of the best.

Healthy Habits

Make a New Cycle, Build Healthy Habits

New Year’s resolutions take one of two approaches. Either you want to stop doing something, or you want to start doing it (or do it more regularly). In either case, you can make a new cycle to help you out.

This starts with understanding that a lot of our behaviors are instinctive. We can’t break out of cycles that are so deeply ingrained without a new strategy. “I’m going to exercise!” and “I’m going to stop biting my nails!” will both fail on their own because your good intentions simply aren’t as strong as the cycles you already have in place. We go from cue to activity to reward without really thinking about it. An example will help to understand this: social media.

A lot of people will openly tell you that social media wastes their time and makes them feel bad. Yet they can’t stop checking in any way. You probably know the feeling of being bored, then clicking away to check out the recent Facebook news. (Just reading that probably makes you want to check Facebook a little.) Once you get there, you’ll scroll a bit, get a brief hit of dopamine – the feel-good drug – and then go back to work. Repeat times a billion.

This may not make you feel good overall. But your brain has trouble conceptualizing that. As far as it is concerned, you just had a grand time and should do it again. You were cued (boredom), you did the thing (Facebook), you got a reward (hit of dopamine). You’re going to have a hard time abolishing that routine. That’s because the brain is hard-wired to love this cue-reward cycle.

The great thing about a new cycle is it can use the same cue and reward, but sub in a different activity. Bored? Take a 10-minute walk. Reward: dopamine! The beginning and end are the same. But the middle becomes something that makes you feel good instead of crummy, and actually benefits your life. Take a hard look at your routines: Where else can you do this?

Make Bad Behavior Impossible (Or Much Harder)

Sometimes habits are too deeply ingrained to sub out one activity for the next. In that case, you need to make the behavior impossible, or at least harder.

Have a cookie addiction? Remove them from the house. Bite your nails? Wear gloves. Check social media compulsively? Use a website blocker that will keep you away from the sites you want to avoid. This works both as a distracter blocker and as a time management app. That way, the time you block out for an activity remains dedicated to that activity. (Interested? Get the app here.)

Do you get distracted by music while you’re working? Perhaps you start making playlists, or get pulled into music videos? Instead, you may wish to try an ambient noise app that helps you focus while jumpstarting your creativity the same way music does. That way you won’t get the urge to turn something on as you do with silence.

On the flip side, sometimes you need to make the habit easy. Instead of going home, packing your gym bag and going to the gym, pack it the night before and have it in the car. Alternatively, instead of putting your alarm next to you where you can snooze to your heart’s content, put it across the room. To turn it off, you’ll have to get up. Since that’s the hardest part of rising, you’ve just made it much more likely you’ll be awake for the day.

Stay Energized

A big part of making the right decisions is… well, decision-making. This tautology hides a powerful truth: If you make the right decisions, you’ll steer toward your goals. If you make the wrong decisions, you veer away from them. Obviously, making the right choices is a better way to achieve those resolutions.

Here’s where most people falter, by gritting their teeth and proclaiming, “This time I’ll do it!” The problem is, no matter how loudly you say this, you haven’t measurably increased your willpower in any way. That’s because you haven’t done anything to alter the state of your body.

This state is critical. The research is clear that when you’re tired, hungry or emotionally wrecked, your ability to make good choices is compromised. In a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers discovered that criminals are less likely to get paroled if they go before a judge before snack break, lunch or the end of the day. That’s because the judge is hungry and low on glucose, the body’s energy molecule, so they can’t think clearly. Their inability to assess the case accurately makes them ultra-conservative. So, criminals rarely receive parole right before lunch.

Your body suffers the same failing: if you get too hungry (or tired or frustrated, etc.), you can’t make good decisions. Taking care of your physical well-being goes a long way toward reaching those resolutions.

Bottom line? Managing your time, resisting temptations, following through on goals, creating healthy habits, and generally hitting those New Year’s resolutions isn’t easy. But it is relatively simple. Just treat willpower differently. Start by using the resolutions above and, as you find success, put further guardrails in place. Watch amazing results appear.


Want to build healthy habits in the new year? If your track record for keeping resolutions is dismal, you're not alone. Try this instead.
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  • Samantha

    Over the years, I’ve been a victim of the New Year Resolution thingy. I make up my mind to follow some healthy habits, but I don’t see myself taking it far diligently. Thanks for sharing this piece, it’s high time I exercised my willpower to experience change.

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