Ah, the New Year. Time for New Year’s resolutions.
Every year we try, and every year most of us fail. According to British psychologist Richard Wiseman 88% of all New Year’s resolutions end in failure.
Why is that? Should we blame ourselves? Are we too lazy? Don’t we have enough willpower?
It turns out, it is none of that. The fact of the matter is that you can’t willpower yourself to change. The brain simply doesn’t work that way.
Your Brain Can’t Handle It – Why Willpower Does Not Work
Most of us try to use willpower to achieve our New Year’s resolutions. We will willpower ourselves early out of bed to go jogging. We will willpower ourselves to eat carrots at night instead of cake. Chances are you won’t. Maybe initially you will, but most of us will not continue after a few weeks.
Why is that? The brain cells that operate willpower are located in the area right behind your forehead, in the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex, the part of the frontal lobes lying just behind the forehead, is often referred to as the “CEO of the brain.” This brain region is responsible for cognitive analysis and abstract thought, and the moderation of “correct” behavior in social situations. The prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to reach maturation. This delay may help to explain why some adolescents act the way they do, but that is a different topic.
When you decide on a new year’s resolution, a significant amount of willpower is required. Eating healthier is a commendable choice, but picking the carrot over the cake when you open the fridge does require a lot of willpower.
Research by Stanford professor Dr. Bab Shiv has shown that our prefrontal cortex can only handle so much. It is like a muscle. A muscle can handle only so much. Yes, you can train your muscle and make it stronger, but there is a limit. The same is true with willpower. We can strengthen our willpower, but there is a limit.
In one experiment, Professor Baba Shiv divided a group of students into 2 groups. One group was given a seven digit number to remember, and the other group was given a two digit number to remember. Then, after a short walk to a different room, each group was offered the choice between a bowl of fruit and some chocolate cake. The students who had the seven digit number to remember were twice as likely to pick the chocolate cake compared to the students with the two digit number to remember.
Here is Professor Shiv explaining that experiment in this short (1 min) video:
According to Professor Shiv, the prefrontal cortex (the center of your willpower) can carry only so much. The extra numbers took up valuable capacity in the brain, making it so much harder for the seven digit group to resist the desert.
What does that mean for your new year’s resolution and willpower? Yes, willpower is great. Yes, willpower can get stronger (like a muscle) over time with exercise, but there is a limit. Deciding to start a new year with a resolution to lose weight or eat healthy is equivalent to deciding to run a marathon without any training. This simply isn’t the best way to go.
That is why most of us fail with new year’s resolutions. The brain simply can’t do it.
Is there a better way? It turns out there is.
Tiny Habits Instead Of Willpower – The Secret To Succeed With New Year’s Resolutions
According to Dr. BJ Fogg from Stanford University, the easier it is to do something, the less motivation or willpower it requires. For example, if you decide to drink more water during the day but keep the water out of reach, you will need more willpower to get up, get the water and drink it, than if you keep a water bottle always next to you.
What does this mean for your new year’s resolution? Well, instead of having a big and abstract goal of losing weight, start with tiny steps, like every evening after work, go for a 5 minute walk on the treadmill or around the block. That is easy to do. Once that becomes a habit, you can easily increase the 5 minutes to 10 minutes.
Dr. BJ Fogg explains his approach and how you can succeed in this 17 minute video:
So, break down your resolution into tiny baby steps, and slowly change your behavior. If for example you typically eat only at McDonald’s for all your meals (to pick an extreme example), it would be really hard for you to stop going to McDonald’s and only eat healthy vegetables and salad. A more successful approach would be for example to take the following list of baby steps:
Step 1: Keep going to McDonald’s but eat one serving of vegetables every night. That should be easy to do. You can be playful. Maybe there is a vegetable that you like. Maybe there is a particular way that you can cook that vegetable so that you enjoy eating it. Play with it. If you continue doing that every day, after a few weeks, it will have become a habit. You won’t even think about it anymore. That leads to step 2.
Step 2: You developed a liking to your evening vegetable portion, and maybe you wonder if you could add some meat to it, and eat that instead of your McDonald’s dinner. Mind you, you still eat breakfast and lunch at McDonald’s Here again, play with it. Make it a habit. Try out different things. Do that for a while. After a while you may like it so much and you see weight loss and health improvements that it may motivate you to also change your breakfast. That would be step 3.
Step 3: This is where you change your breakfast……
….and on and on it goes….in many more baby steps….until one day you look back, and your eating habits have completely changed. You lost weight. You are healthier. You are part of the small minority of 12% of the people who actually succeed with their new year’s resolutions.
And it was easier than you thought!
- Wall Street Journal, Blame It on the Brain
- US Department of Health, Maturation of the Prefrontal Cortex
- Stanford Business School, How Do We Decide
- Dr. BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model