It’s Time to Exercise the Willpower Muscle


Like a muscle, willpower can give out if overtaxed. As a mental resource, it has limits, say psychologists. New Year’s resolutions are therefore often ineffective in changing behavior. One survey of over 3,000 people in the U.K. conducted in 2007 found that 88 percent of all resolutions are broken. The main reasons for failure are we take on too many goals; our self-control “muscle” is feeble; and routines/habits are by definition resistant to change.

Willpower is close to the concept of a work ethic—that determination can overcome all obstacles. Decades of social psychology, however, have shown that circumstances around us are often a stronger influence on behavior than our inner drives are. This understanding of willpower is contrary to the idea that self-control (or self-regulation) involves character and discipline. Brain research suggests that the limitations of willpower are found in the makeup of the brain. The area mostly responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is engaged in many activities besides keeping resolutions—for example, it handles short-term memory and deals with unexpected situations or emergencies. In short, it’s often too busy to also keep us on task to reach challenging goals.

Simply being aware of willpower’s flaws can help. Recent research indicates that “willpower fatigue” results from a drop in blood glucose, so a drink of orange juice can replenish our capacity for self-control. To stand a better chance of keeping your resolutions, 1) focus your attention on one goal at a time; 2) take on long-term goals one manageable short-term step at a time (the kinds of behaviors that most people try to tackle with New Year’s resolutions—dieting, exercising more, quitting smoking—have been learned over time and can be mastered only with gradual steps); 4) find a supportive social network, because the people around us can be powerful influences—both for success and for failure; and 5) revisit your resolution periodically to assess progress.

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