By Candace Chemtob, B.S. and M.S. in Human Nutrition
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning”.
– TS Eliot
Tis the season for new year’s resolutions. Making a resolution is a commitment to oneself, usually for self improvement. And what a perfect time, as the new year is a time to reflect on the successes and failures of the past year, and to look forward to the new year as a new beginning. Customarily, resolutions often focus on improving one’s health, and for this reason, this article is devoted to exploring the concepts of habit and willpower, and will conclude with concrete tips on how to carry your resolutions through to a successful conclusion.
Starting off with an initial burst of enthusiasm, a third of new year resolutions will be abandoned by the end of January (NYT, 1/5/2012) and 88% by the year end (WSJ, 12/26/2009). What makes it so hard to keep a resolution? The simple truth is that old habits die hard. Habits are formed when we respond to a situation or feeling in the same way time and time again. Each time we respond in a similar manner, we are “remodeling” our brain by creating pathways between neurons that will eventually elicit a predictable response. A habit is formed when that response becomes automatic.
As we all know, breaking habits takes time. To be successful, one must “override” or resist the “automatic” response to a stimulus until new neural pathways are finally formed and reinforced. Conventional wisdom told us it took a mere 18 days to change a habit. However, research has shown this was wishful thinking. In a recent study, Dr. Lalley et al., showed that on average 66 days were needed to change a habit (Eur. J. of Soc. Psychol, 40:998-1009).
Willpower is essential to break a habit. Willpower is a form of self control that allows us to resist temptations. The American Psychological Association defines willpower as the “ability to resist short term gratification in the pursuit of long-term goals or objectives.” Psychologists have conducted research to further understand willpower and their observations have been interesting. First, willpower is a limited resource. Every person has a finite amount of willpower. Overuse of one’s willpower to resist temptation will eventually “drain your ability to withstand future enticements.” We need to protect our willpower, and use it judiciously by limiting temptations when feasible. Secondly, the amount of willpower each person possesses varies. Children with better self control, tend to have more willpower as adults (www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx).
Using your willpower requires mental energy. Not just mere thoughts, but actual energy. Research found that humans asked to exert self control in a laboratory setting had lower blood sugar levels than the controls. This study suggests that exerting willpower requires glucose, which is the energy source for the brain (Gailiott, M. et al, J of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007). Eating regular, healthy meals and snacks, has been suggested as a strategy to improve willpower. Additionally, a positive attitude and mood have been found to increase one’s willpower as well.
Positive change is worth the effort and here are some tips to help you achieve your new year resolutions:
- 1. Make a single goal. Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to achieve two or more goals at once. Write down your goal. Make it affirmative. Post it in a visible, prominent location. Lululemon, the athletic clothing company, has developed a helpful goal setting program at www.lululemon.com/education/goalsetting.
- Your resolution should be specific and measurable. Vague goals such as “In 2013, I will get in better shape” should be replaced by more specific goals. Break your goal down into segments. Put this on your calendar, set alerts on your phone.
- Make yourself accountable. Publicly announce your resolution. Yale professor Dean Karlan created a “commitment” program (stickk.com) to write your personal goals and develop incentives to keep your resolutions. If you choose you can put down stakes on your success or failure (yes, money), designate a referee and develop your own support group. The success rate of stickk.com participants who use a referee and put money on the line is 80%. This may work for you.
- If you can see that you are having difficulty, seek outside help. If you want to improve your fitness level, you can reach out to a trainer. If you want to eat a healthy diet, seek out the help of a dietitian. Whatever the goal is, remember a professional may help get your there.
- If you slip, don’t give up. Remember, when it comes to your health it is not an all or none proposition. Remember tomorrow is a new day, and just start again. No one is “perfect”. Reward yourself for a job well done! Celebrate your success.
Changing is not easy, but in the end after lots of hard work, you have the supreme satisfaction of knowing that you attained something. Remember the wise and inspirational words of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – and We should all strive to find our own personal best!