Why is it so hard to keep New Year’s Resolutions (or “Willpower vs Urges”)

Aaaah, New Year’s Eve. Time to welcome the New Year, wave goodbye to our lazy, underachieving selves and welcome a brand new “me” …Oh yeah, it’s time for the list. The list of unattainable goals.

Like most people, I look back on 2012 and recap events, success, failures…and like most people, I come up with a list of things that I should improve or change in the New Year. Or just things I want to do in general.  Actually, I’ve noticed that my New Year’s Resolutions are more or less the same every year:

  • Get fit (I think this one is probably on most people’s lists…seems only natural after we indulged during the holidays and probably ate our own body weight in food). Progress: I try to run 5 k three times a week. But I still don’t look like Jessica Ennis which I totaaaallly could – without keeping a special diet or exercising 120 hours/day. So, let’s say, progress: …mmmmkkk…
  • Save money (has been on my list ever since I can remember…) Progress: None. I still suck at managing money. If I’m having a good month, I end up with about 1 dollar/euro/pound left in my account at the end of the month. Savings – zero.
  • Stop procrastinating. Progress: …Wait, where are we?!…I was watching a video on youtube about a dog barking at a toilet…
  • Write a novel/play/opera/stunning piece of music that would put Wolfgang Amadeus to shame (Needless to point out here that I am neither trained in creative writing, have never taken a course and that it’s been years since I touched a piano)/ some other unattainable creative goal. Progress: …well, I have a blog now. You gotta start somewhere, right?!
  • Run a marathon (this has actually been on my list of New Year’s Resolutions for the last 5 years…Progress: Have not yet run a marathon, or trained for one – but (!) I did run my first 5 k race in 2012, so HAH.
  • Be a happier/more optimistic/more interesting/funnier/less petty/more knowledgeable/ more super duper amazingly awesome person. Progress: Still same old me.

New Year’s Resolutions are a good way of identifying areas in our lives that we want to improve on. But, as most of us know, it takes a lot of self-control and willpower to stick to our resolutions.

I think I have a moderate level of self-control. I do have some willpower, but I find it difficult to suppress my urges for long periods of time. So, what does that mean? I don’t mind doing a diet for a week or two, but after that I get bored and  give into temptations. The same thing goes for creative or fitness projects. I have high self-control when it comes to attaining short-term goals or reaping immediate (or short-term) rewards, e.g., losing x-amount of weight within 2 weeks. However, I do get immensely bored and demotivated if I have to exercise  willpower to attain a goal that I may or may not achieve  in the long-term. I assume it’s like that for most people.

So, let’s start with urges. Why do we get urges and why is it that we just can’t resist even if we know it’s bad for us? Urges are impulses and emotions, being overcome by strong sensations or a desire of really “wanting” (to do) something. Some of these urges seem to be “natural”, for example food cravings. According to Adam Drewnowski (2010), craving fat, sugar and salt may be results of evolutionary pressures to select foods that are calorie-dense and could guarantee survival. Studies have also shown (Birch, 1999, Johnson et al, 1991, Birch, 1992) that there is a sensory preference for sweet taste present at birth, and that children prefer flavors associated with high-energy content.

As for not attaining creative and/or fitness goals, it seems we only have ourselves to blame , or more specifically our procrastinating selves. I have to admit I am a hardcore procrastinator. I can’t write or complete any task until I have THE FEAR, I delay opening bank statements and any other urgent mail, I actually miss opportunities to get special deals. Procrastination is something that many people struggle with. You know, you just know, you have to, or should, do something but you put it off until you can no longer ignore it.

A study by the University of Konstanz has shown that there seems to be a link between procrastination and how we think about a task. If we think about it in abstract terms, as in “I have to run a marathon”, it seems to be psychologically “distant” and more difficult to complete. Whereas if we think of tasks in more specific terms, e.g., “Today I’m going to run 5 k, tomorow 6 k, the day after tomorrow 7 k…”, tasks become more manageable which can reduce procrastination. Even just thinking about how, when and where you will do part of the task can immensely help in hopping right on a task instead of delaying it.

One myth I would like to debunk is: People who procrastinate are lazy or underachievers. No. Some of the smartest, hard-working and successful individuals I know are hardcore procrastinators. Procrastination doesn’t mean you work less hard, it just means you work just as hard in a much smaller time frame to meet that deadline. Dr Ferrari (that is his actually name!) at De Paul University identifies three types of procrastinators:

1. Thrill-seekers, who wait until the last minute for the euphoric rush (So me – although I wouldn’t describe it as euphoric rush, but positive stress)

2. Avoiders, who may be avoiding tasks because of fear of failure or even fear of success.

3. Decisional procrastinators, who can’t make decisions and who are more likely to make decisions when feeling the pressure of a deadline.

So, looking at that list, one things seems to be pretty clear: The urge to procrastinate is all in our heads. And – so is willpower! (duh) Meaning, you can change the way you think about things you have to or want to do. In fact, it might even be better for you.

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel, a psychology professor at the University of Stanford, conducted the “Marshmallow Experiment” in which he offered young children the choice of one marshmallow they could eat right away, or two if they waited 15 minutes and did not eat the Marshmallow that was initially offered to them. Check out this video of a Marshmallow-test: 

The footage shows that children struggle with delaying gratification. They stare at the marshmallow, touch it, smell it. You can feel the inner torment that some of them go through in trying to resist the mighty marshmallow. Walter Mischel’s findings showed that most children struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes. Only about 30% of the children successfully delayed gratification and got a second marshmallow. Mischel observed children he tested in their adolescence and noticed that children who were more successful at practicing self-control in the Marshmallow Experiment were more likely to do well academically and coped better with problems and stress. He found that children who ate the marshmallow quickly, seemed to have more behavioural problems, had trouble paying attention and struggled in stressful situations.

Mischel’s findings seem to be supported by another long-term study in New Zealand that tracked over 1,000 people, rating their observed and reported willpower. Taking into account differences in education, intelligence and social class, the study found that people with higher self-control were healthier, happier and wealthier.

But do not despair. You are not doomed just because you can’t resist a marshmallow. Roy F Baumeister, an authority in the field of studying self-control, argues that willpower is all baby steps towards restraining our urges. He argues that willpower is a muscle we can exercise. Even though it’s not a physical muscle, this “moral” muscle shares many characteristics with actual muscles.

First of all, exercising willpower requires energy! According to Baumeister’s findings, exercising willpower, making choices and taking initiatives all seem to dip into the same pot of energy. He found that straight after completing a task that required participants to restrain their urges or emotions, they were more likely to under perform at other jobs relating to willpower, such as solving puzzles. He also found that a weak immune system or women’s premenstrual syndrome can also impact on the function of  the “willpower muscle”, meaning that our restraints are weakened when we are ill or have PMS (Rejoice ladies, a legitimate excuse to binge that time a month). But, like any other muscle of our body that is affected by energy loss or a weak immune system, you can train it. By exercising small efforts of willpower every day, e.g. remembering to stand up straight, having only one chocolate biscuit instead of the whole pack, you are more likely to succeed at tasks that require a lot of self-control. And he also found that we are more likely to exercise greater self-control when we are well-rested and fed (Never go to the supermarket when you are hungry!!!).

So, what does this mean in practical terms: Baumeister argues that if you don’t take too much on at once, establish good habits and routines, sleep well and avoid crash diets, you can significantly increase your willpower step-by-step.

So, there you go. Perhaps it’s better set small and manageable goals as your New Year’s Resolutions. Tasks that are daunting and unattainable, but small things that you can incorporate into your daily routine. That way, your willpower won’t wane faster than you can say “chocolate marshmallow”.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

And to conclude, 2 of my favourite quotes to lead into the New Year.

1. (Borrowed from my friend Shiloh): Life is not about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.

2. 98% of success is showing up.

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