Is willpower enough to keep your New Year’s resolutions?

Is willpower enough to keep your New Year’s resolutions?

8 min read

Happy New Year! We associate New Year's Eve with glasses champagne, fireworks at midnight, and a lot of happy new year wishes. And of course the renewed New Year’s resolutions. What do you want to change or achieve in 2019? Quit smoking? Lose some weight? Travel more, or is 2019 the year you will get engaged? I bet some of this year’s resolutions are the same as the ones from last year. But this year, you tell yourself, you have more willpower than last year to achieve your goals. Sounds familiar?

It seems hard to keep your new year’s resolutions. On January the first we are inspired to make a change, but a month later we see ourselves skipping the gym. It is difficult to let go of habits you have had for years. What makes it so complicated to form new habits and have the ‘strength’ to achieve your goals? Is willpower enough to change your behaviour?

I won’t, I will, I want

Willpower is the ability to resist immediate desires that are not in line with your long-term goals. It is a constant internal challenge to say ‘no’ when your whole body wants to say ‘yes’. That means that you may have to do things you dislike, but which are necessary to achieve your goal. Stay away from the cookie jar to lose weight, study a lot to get good grades, and work hard and save enough money to travel the world. To achieve these goals you need to continually remember what you truly want. What will you do, or won’t you do any longer to achieve your goals?

The willpower muscle

In psychological research, willpower is often compared to a muscle. You can make this willpower-muscle stronger by training it, but you can overuse it as well. The overuse of the ‘willpower-muscle’ is known as willpower-exhaustion. The ability to exert self-control and resist all temptations demands much cognitive energy. This draws the brain into a mental state called cognitive fatigue. System 1 drives our behaviour, which makes it a lot harder to slow down the mind and make rational decisions. Willpower exhaustion happens all the time and to everybody. It helps to keep your glucose level and energy level high. That is why it helps to take a break during Christmas shopping and have a cookie.

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Willpower exercises

If we consider willpower a muscle, we can train this muscle to improve our willpower. That way it should be easy to keep your New Year’s resolutions this year. All you have to do is practice and train your self-control! Small and regular willpower challenges are an example of an exercise to train this muscle. You can place a cookie jar in a prominent place in your living room, but you are not allowed to take one. Frequent exposure to small challenges will slowly boost your willpower. And you will benefit from a stronger willpower muscle when you are faced with a much bigger challenge.

But even though we have trained this muscle for years, our resolutions often result in broken promises to ourselves. If you want to change your life effectively, willpower won’t get you there.

Why willpower doesn’t work

To understand why it is challenging to let willpower control your behaviour, you need to know how our behaviour is formed. We have explained about System 1 and System 2, the two different processes for decision-making. System 1 is automatic, fast processing, and operates in the subconscious mind. System 2 is the slower, conscious, and enables us to make rational decisions. That is why we often feel bad after we gave in to our immediate desires, the quick decisions made by System 1. System 2 rationalises the actions of System 1, focused on the longterm outcomes from the decisions.

A constant debate

The willpower to not succumb to your desires is a continuous conflict between your goal and the environment. System 1, driven by sensory stimuli and our emotions, wants to give in immediately to the desires. The willpower to not do so is a conscious process, which operates in System 2. System 2 always tries to override System 1, which demands a lot of cognitive energy. It is not possible to exert control over System 1 all the time. Thus, willpower may not be enough to keep your New Year’s resolutions. But changing your environment will.

The environment

When I ask you not to thinks about trains, you will notice that trains keep popping up in your mind. Even though trains is not something you think about on a regular basis, it is very hard to block trains from your thoughts right now. That is why it is not recommended to forbid your favourite foods from your diet. Constantly thinking about the sweets, makes you want it more. Your brain is nonstop occupied not paying attention to all sensory stimuli in the environment. That is too hard to maintain, which weakens the cognitive capacity to resists temptations.

Don’t get distracted

When you are distracted or stressed, you are more likely to give in to temptations that mislead you from your goals to keep your New Year’s resolutions. When your mind is pre-occupied, you lose a significant amount of willpower. That is why it is convenient to remove all unnecessary stuff from your desk and put your phone on silent when you have to concentrate on work. Constant pop-ups from incoming messages diminishes your focus on your work. Without the environmental distractions, you can create conditions that make your success inevitable.

Avoid a choice-overload

Imagine how much time you can save in the morning when you only have to choose between two sweaters, instead of twelve. Choice-overload results in cognitive fatigue and thus weakens our ability to suppress our desires. Remove everything you don’t need and diminish your choices. That will change your default option. The default option is the pre-set choice of behaviour or action that always will be followed unless another decision is consciously made. When the default option is in line with your long-term goals, you won’t automatically do something else.

Get it done!

Things can changing faster than you thought possible. The small things matter to make the options you desire more accessible. What barriers do you have to your goals? The psychological approach of the willpower muscle doesn’t focus on changing the environment. It is focused on how to increase your efforts to overcome the temptations in the surroundings.

To effectively change your behaviour you have to shut down this internal conflict between your goals and the environment. It is not enough to change all environmental settings. You have to change your wishes and desires and be genuinely convinced that these are the goals you want to achieve. If something is considered a temptation, it means that you did not align your subconscious desires with your long-term goal.

If you’re genuinely committed to your New Year’s resolution, this is what you will do automatically. All the decisions you make will be in favour of this achievement. An environment that is designed to do nothing but change your behaviour does not include temptations.

Your final takeaways

Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step method to keep your New Year’s resolutions. But you can take this knowledge in your own life. Make small adjustments, and keep the following takeaways in mind:

  • Meditate! Meditation helps you to eliminate distractions from your mind. Research has shown that meditation increases the grey matter in your brain. The grey matter is related to self-control and rational thinking.
  • Replace the ‘I won’t’ with ‘I will’. Instead of thinking ‘I won’t eat sweets and cookies’ you can replace this thought by ‘I will eat more vegetables’. We prefer to be focused on what we have instead of what we lack.
  • Prevent yourself from cognitive fatigue. Refuel your brain with some glucose at the time.
  • Notice what your emotional state is when working on your goal. Build associations between the unpleasant tasks and positive outcomes. It helps to do unpleasant tasks in a happy environment. When you do your studying at your favourite coffee place with a delicious cappuccino, it may not be so bad after all.
  • To keep your New Year’s resolutions this year, you must be genuinely committed and convinced that this is what you want. Make sure to create an environment that makes every decision in favour of your new behaviour. Want to change? Then change your environment. And let’s make sure that your resolutions for 2020 are different than this year!


Evi Rozendal

Evi Rozendal

Combines the art of storytelling with the science of cognitive & neuropsychology

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