How to Increase Willpower and Follow Through With Resolutions

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.


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.

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

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.

You and John Tierney, your co-author, are both remarkably productive. Your chapter on "A Brief History of the To-Do List" touches on how clutter -- mental and physical -- can derail our best efforts. What have you found, in the lab and in life, that people can do to quiet the inner nag that can distract them from their goals?

The "To-Do List" chapter features an interview with David Allen, who realized that you don't have to finish everything -- you just have to make sure it will be taken care of, such as by making a clear and explicit plan for how to get it done. My laboratory research (with E.J. Masicampo, the Ph.D. student who designed the key experiments) has shown that your unconscious mind will stop nagging you if you have an explicit plan to get things done, just as Allen surmised.

You mention that "bright lines," simple and unambiguous rules that can be clearly kept or broken, are helpful. Should people consider reframing their resolutions to make them more sharply defined?

Bright lines help self-control. Obviously they are a metaphor, and the opposite metaphor is the slippery slope. Again, the unconscious works best with clear, explicit, unambiguous rules and plans. So a resolution to lose some weight is not that easy to follow. It is much easier to follow a plan that says no potato chips, fries, or ice cream for six weeks.

Because being hungry erodes our ability to resist food, you call dieting "a perfect storm" when it comes to maintaining willpower. But eating less, quitting smoking, and exercising more are common resolutions. What can people struggling to keep these and similar resolutions do to shore up their willpower?

First off, don't make these resolutions all at once. To maintain good willpower, you need food, to provide fuel for the brain. Hence the first plan should be to find some healthy food that you enjoy and can eat consistently. Once you consume that -- and wait a bit until your body digests the food and starts putting the energy into your bloodstream -- you will be better equipped to resist temptations.

Research has shown that self-awareness helps us improve self-regulation. Should people put mirrors on their refrigerators? Next to their TVs?

Mirrors call attention to the self and thereby remind us of our goals, values, and ideals. Many people eat too much because they scarcely pay attention to what they eat. Brian Wansink wrote a book about this, called Mindless Eating.

If you eat while watching television or while engrossed in a conversation with others, you pay less attention to what you eat and therefore may not notice how much you eat. In that case, people tend to consume whatever is in front of them. They eat until the food is gone. For best results, eat alone in front of a mirror. That may not be all that pleasant, but it will constantly call your attention to how much you consume and remind you of your intent to avoid excess.

According to your book, going public -- telling others -- improves willpower. What are some other things we can do to maximize our chances of successfully keeping a resolution?

Social support and interpersonal pressure can help quite a bit. The most important thing is to keep track, day by day, of what you are trying to control. Keep an explicit, written record of how much you eat or spend or exercise. Sharing this record with others is also helpful.

Pre-commitment is another class of helpful strategies. When people choose what they are going to eat well in advance, they eat better than when they decide, impulsively, what and how much to eat on each occasion. Pre-commitment includes things like automatic savings plans that transfer some of your paycheck into a savings account, without you having to make a decision each time.

Is there such a thing as a good starter resolution? If so, what is it? Is there a better time to make a resolution than on New Year's Day?

New Year's Day is a fine time to make resolutions. The only one that I think is possibly better is your birthday, which can be a time to reflect on your life, including what you achieved during the past year and what you want to do in the next year. A birthday is like your own personal new year's day.

As for a starter resolution, we recommend you begin with something small and doable. Pick a small positive change that you'd like to make in your life. Don't start with a tough one, like losing 30 pounds or quitting smoking. Start with something like making your bed each morning, or cleaning up the dishes right after dinner, or not swearing in front of the children. And then follow through. If you succeed at this easy one, it will actually strengthen your willpower, thereby improving your ability to succeed at the next, more difficult one. Once you have a series of successes under your belt, you will be better able to tackle the really tough ones, like smoking or losing weight.

Image: Douglas Freer/Shutterstock.

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