Changes that stick

How to develop the willpower to make your resolutions last all year

You may have resolved to make lasting changes to your behavior this year — things you would do more often (exercising, networking) or would stop doing (smoking, gambling, screaming at employees). Chances are that you are back in the same rut, with sagging resolve and feeling disappointed with yourself once again. Or you are still hanging on, but starting to waver. How can you succeed at making changes last?

Ways to strengthen willpower

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and Stanford University lecturer, provides a number of suggestions in her illuminating 2012 book, The Willpower Instinct. She defines willpower as “the ability to do what you really want to do when part of you really doesn’t want to do it.” McGonigal asserts that through exercising self-control, one can strengthen the willpower instinct. By contrast, trying to ignore one’s cravings or piling on with self-criticism are not effective ways to strengthen resolve. Here are other techniques she suggests for boosting willpower:

Avoid distractions. McGonigal cites research from marketing professor Baba Shiv that when distracted, people are 50 percent more likely to buy unhealthy versus healthy snacks, and are more likely to buy things not on their shopping lists. You could reassert your willpower by taking a moment prior to acting when you are being seduced into impulsive behavior, and delaying a decision until the immediate distraction is resolved.
Meditate. Meditation, even in small doses, increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls willpower. Meditation also improves other functions, such as self-awareness and impulse control, that are useful for exhibiting willpower.
Get healthy. There is ample evidence that the things you would wish to do for your health, such as getting enough sleep, exercising moderately and eating better, will also build up your reserves of willpower. You may not realize consciously that you are feeling more resolute, but the changes will be happening. Naturally, if eating better is exactly the area where you are failing to exert self-control, eating well won’t be the primary way to build willpower. Instead, just focus on the many other options. Exercise is particularly effective. In one Australian study by psychologist Megan Oaten and biologist Ken Chang, participants in a moderate exercise program significantly reduced their alcohol, caffeine and junk food intake, increased their attention and impulse control, improved their concentration, and made fewer impulse purchases. And this is despite the fact that they had not been focused on any of these desired outcomes! The physical changes, without any intent, had changed the playing field in favor of self-control.
De-stress. Stress robs self-control, while other activities reduce stress. Even if you absolutely cannot work less, and even if you cannot sleep or exercise more (in which case you might wish to re-examine your career), there are still things you can do to lighten stress, such as connecting with friends and loved ones or engaging in religious pursuits.

Use it — and lose it?

One cloud on this horizon of good news comes from the research of psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. He has found in dozens of studies that willpower is like a muscle and that it can be exhausted. Ironically, if you exhibit great self-control on one occasion, you may actually be more vulnerable in the short term to giving in and breaking your resolve in another area of life. Thus, if you force yourself to go the gym, you may be more likely to scream at fellow drivers or stay up too late watching reruns — even though you were trying to exert control in those areas as well.

Fortunately, there is a fallacy to this gloomy prognosis of limited willpower. If you exert great willpower not to enter ice cream store you pass on the way home, you may indeed have depleted your reservoir of willpower. However, if you resist the temptation to indulge enough times, not stopping will become your new habit rather than another test of your willpower. The hundredth time you go right by the ice cream store without stopping, it will deplete none of your resolve (unless you are dealing with a physiological addiction). That’s the beauty of establishing and maintaining new habits — they free up willpower strength for new challenges.

In addition, techniques of avoidance, such as choosing a new route home that does not pass the ice cream store, are other ways to break your undesirable habit without a frontal assault that requires great resolve. Similarly, freeing up that ironclad window of time when you are inaccessible to anyone and anything else in order to pursue your goal — be it going to the gym, laying out the company’s vision or beginning your novel — will take much less willpower than planning to extract yourself from the middle of a busy workday to work on your private goal.

There may be backsliding and pitfalls on the road to changing something in your life, but if you are committed and realistic, you can ride them out. Trying to be on your best behavior all the time can be hard, especially if you are physically, emotionally or spiritually depleted. Conversely, living a good life and taking care of yourself will have the added benefit of making it easier to achieve your goals.

Fred Mael, Ph.D., helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in 2016 in Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.