At last! The real reason why you may struggle keeping to your well-meaning intentions for improved health, vitality and wellbeing.
And it’s not that you aren’t trying hard enough. Its just that willpower is an extremely limited resource, so you need to use it wisely.
Despite best intentions, a whopping great 88% of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman. As you may have already suspected on day three of your resolve to give up everything from cigarettes to chocolate ice-cream, bad habits are hard to break. And thanks to the latest in studies we now know they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once.
The brain area largely responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. Scientists have discovered its in charge of quite a lot of stuff including keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. So adding a list of unrealistic New Year’s resolution to the task list may be one ask too many.
To give an example of just how feeble our willpower can be. In one experiment subjects who had had to recall just five extra digits on a memory test were twice as likely to give in to temptation when asked to choose between a bowl of fruit or a piece of chocolate cake during the test, compared to those with only two digits to remember.
When your brain is tired its that much harder to resist temptation. Which is why the diet goes out the window after a tough day at the office or a night out on the turps.
So its not your lack of discipline that gets in the way of your good intentions so much as the brain’s limitations. The good news is that you can bypass your weaknesses now you know about them.
Here are a few ways to improve your chances at realizing your goals – particularly those requiring willpower such as changing your diet, or heading out to do exercise:
- Spread your goals out over the year. This will maximise your success by allocating your precious willpower over a longer period.
- Willpower is like a muscle, it can improve over time. So the more your practice the better you get. Which means that saving more arduous goals for when you have some successes under your belt could be a good idea.
- If you want to quit doing something, learn to redirect your attention to other positive activities (and away from the activity you are trying to give up). Its being able to distract yourself easily, rather than restraint, which helps you stick to your goals.
- Be aware of how fatigue reduces your abilities to stay focused on your goal and ensure you maintain your physical energy (eg eat regularly). Tests show that willpower requires real energy. Something to keep in mind if you are dieting!
- Focus on one willpower task at a time. Your brain can’t cope with too many good intentions at once.
- Be specific. Stating that you will meditate before breakfast and after taking the dogs for a walk, will give you greater success, as the situation, not your behaviour, is what triggers the behaviour.
- Get ahold of a goal buddy or coach. Having someone who will regularly contact you reminding you of your commitment is shown to have a lasting effect, even months later when you are no longer receiving the calls.
Finally, the best scientific data puts it at somewhere between 21 and 66 days to form a new habit. If you set your intention to stick with your goal for at least that long you may find willpower is needed less and less. The new behaviour has become (a joyful!) part of your routine.
So now you know how to support yourself – and your brain – it’s time to shelve the excuses and harness your willpower to get the results you want.
Thanks to Jonah Lehrer for some the content in this post. See the full article here: