It's May. Do you know where your New Year's resolutions are?
There's a reason we rarely talk about long-term goals after January: We don't want to be reminded that our stick-to-it determination is, in fact, not so sticky. Most of us think of willpower as a fixed commodity, something we are either blessed with at birth, or doomed to suffer without for life. But psychologists who study willpower and self-control say that's not the case. We have more control over willpower than we think, and we can game the system in our favor.
For instance, studies indicate that most of us have more self-control in the morning rather than late in the day. Also, listening to comedy or, for the religious, saying a prayer can stimulate our resolve.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Here, a few more tips for using science to help bring your dreams to fruition.
1. Have an end-game
"We have lots of examples where people can persist through pretty tough conditions, especially if they know there's an end in sight," says Eliot Berkman, assistant professor of psychology and director of the social and affective neuroscience lab at the University of Oregon. For instance, one study used non-smoking flights as a lab for examining self-control and cravings. Flight attendants who smoked were asked to record their cravings at regular intervals. Their desire to smoke increased gradually over the duration of the flight, spiking in the last five minutes before landing. But here's the clincher: This was true whether the flight was three hours or 13 hours.
"It's not that they ran out of willpower," Berkman explains. "They knew they only needed to engage willpower for X number of hours, so they made it happen. If you know in advance how much you need, you allocate out that much willpower."
2. Use a buddy system
Nobody wants to look like a quitter, so stating your intentions — out loud — can boost your motivation to stay on task.
"The more widely you announce your goals, the better," says Berkman.
One study performed at the University of South Carolina found that participants in a weight loss program benefited by using Twitter as a daily support tool. Those who tweeted their daily triumphs and struggles lost more weight than those who didn't — to the tune of half a pound for every ten tweets. The results indicate that social media — and accountability partners — can provide effective social support and contribute to our own success.
3. Go for the low-hanging fruit
It's okay to set a lofty goal, but make sure it's both attainable and includes early rewards.
"If your goal is to exercise more, just make concrete, specific, low-hanging fruit," says Berkman. "Start with taking a walk three times a week." In other words, if you are completely sedentary, don't start with a goal of running six miles a week. Technically it's realistic that a person can run six miles a week, but maybe you can't — yet. Instead, set incremental goals to give yourself early wins and boost your enthusiasm.
"Small things are the way to start. Set the goals in a modest way so you're setting yourself up," says Berkman.
4. Turn 'do not' into 'do'
The more you want that goal, the harder you'll work to reach it. "A lot of people in goal and motivation literature have said the problem is not self-regulation," says Berkman. "It's the goal-setting. If you set bad goals, you set yourself up for failure."
Goals that begin with "stop" or "don't" are problematic in that they require more self-control than continuing or extending a positive behavior. In that vein, we're more likely to succeed by focusing on goals that have an intrinsic reward instead of those that require giving something up or curtailing a well-ingrained habit.
"For instance if I'm trying to diet, but I really enjoy eating, if I set the goal as eating less, that's setting myself up for failure," says Berkman. "But if I set the goal as trying to find and eat the most delicious healthy food, I can achieve my higher order goal and continue to think of myself as foodie."
5. Convince yourself
"People who believe they have a lot of willpower, they do," says Berkman. "And it's not just a personality trait, you can get them to believe."
This might sound like pseudo-science, but there is research to back it up. For example, in one study, researchers basically put the children's book The Little Engine That Could to the test. They followed 153 college students over five weeks and found that those who believed willpower was an unlimited resource were less prone to procrastinate or eat junk food. As you might expect, their grades were better than those of their Eeyore counterparts. "People who think they can are the ones who can," says Berkman. "You can give them a test and then tell them they have high willpower, and, lo and behold, they will evince strong willpower."
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.