How to Increase Willpower and Follow Through With Resolutions

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Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has spent years studying how people resist temptation and break bad habits--and he's here to help.

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Many people who made New Year's resolutions are likely struggling with them now. Some may have already given up. Others are just letting the whole thing slide. The fact is that the act of making a resolution is a necessary step on the road to change. And for many of us, it is an exhilarating moment. It's a way of telling yourself what's important to you and committing some mental energy to it. It's all those other, harder, steps afterward that can be tough.

CALL IN THE EXPERTS, IT'S RESOLUTION CRUNCH TIME

The urge to improve ourselves is noble and worthy of our effort and attention. We thought maybe you would like some expert help getting through the days and weeks and months ahead as you try to quit smoking, lose weight, be kinder, be more organized, be less time compulsive, make lists, reduce clutter, and stop procrastinating.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister, the Francis Eppes Professor at Florida State University, has spent years studying how people regulate their emotions, resist temptation, break bad habits, and perform up to their potential -- and why they often fail to do so. His new book, Willpower, Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written with co-author and New York Times science writer John Tierney, offers a clear picture of just why willpower is so tricky and so often misunderstood.

Luckily, Willpower also describes strategies that you can use to improve your ability to achieve your goals. We asked him for some advice on coping with the inevitable challenges to the resolutions many of us made so hopefully a month ago.

Your book is based on your own research and others' that has found we each have a finite reserve of willpower, though this capability can be developed. What does the research have to say that might help people trying to turn over a new leaf in the New Year?

Quite a bit. Most New Year's resolutions are about making positive changes to oneself. That's also what self-control is for. Thus, New Year's resolutions are essentially applications of self-control.

Why do we often have trouble with our New Year's resolutions? If a person is having trouble keeping a resolution, what are their alternatives, other than scrapping it?

Each person's supply of willpower is limited. And, as the "power" aspect of willpower implies, it's a form of energy. It gets depleted when you use it.

So keeping New Year's resolutions depends on the basic energy supply that the person needs for all other acts of self-control, as well as other things, like decision-making. A day in which you have had to make a number of tough decisions is likely to be a day you'll be sorely tempted not to follow through on your resolutions.

One common problem is that people make multiple resolutions. These are all effectively commitments to use one's willpower. Unfortunately, just making the resolution doesn't increase your supply. When you have several resolutions, each time you try to keep any of them, you use up some of the precious willpower that is needed to keep the others. In other words, multiple resolutions all work against each other and undermine each other's chances of success.

Only work on one resolution at a time. If you want to make several changes in yourself this year, do them one after the other, rather than simultaneously. In fact, succeeding at the first one can be a kind of exercise that strengthens your willpower and thereby improves your chances of succeeding at the others.

Why do some people seem to have more willpower than others?

It's tempting to think that some people are just lucky to be born with great willpower. It is in fact possible that some people are given a head start by good genes. But that doesn't matter in the long run. Willpower is something that you cultivate over the years, by regular exercise and self-discipline.

Also, some people use their willpower more effectively than others. Because the supply is limited it needs to be used and managed properly, just like any limited resource (water, oil, land). Our research shows that people with good self-control actually spend less time resisting desires than other people, because they avoid problem situations and cultivate good habits. These enable them to get the most out of their willpower. They may not actually have more willpower, but they use it more wisely. Understanding how willpower works can be a powerful key to a happier, more successful life.

Why do certain habits help increase willpower?

Habits do not actually increase willpower -- they conserve it. A habit is a pattern of automatic behavior. Behaving automatically requires less effort than deliberately exerting conscious control over one's actions. The most successful people use their willpower to set up effective habits, rather than relying on it to bail them out of trouble or cope with problems.

For example, people who score high on the trait of self-control are only slightly better than others at dieting, but they are substantially better at work and school. While some people might use their willpower to work all night at the last minute to meet a deadline, people with good self-control cultivate good work and study habits that keep them on track and ahead of schedule. They don't need to tap into their willpower reserves. The best work comes not from heroic all-nighters but from steady, disciplined progress over the long run.

Is there a way to conserve our willpower to help us with our resolutions?

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Leslie Carr is the editor-in-chief at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow. She was formerly an editor at Random House, HarperCollins, and Prentice Hall Publishers.

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