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Before you make a new year’s resolution, read this!

More Amazing thing this new year

It’s that time of year again, when the season’s festivities are behind us and with full bellies and a bit of enforced downtime, we tend to reflect on the year that’s passed and think about changes we might make in the coming twelve months.  It’s at this time of year when we are generally inclined to make New Year’s Resolutions. With the new year and the promise of a whole new start just days away, it seems like the perfect time to take all those life changes we’ve been contemplating and put them into action.

Except, no. While I’m a huge fan of making positive changes in your life, I am not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions and I’d like to explain why.

First of all, many people decide that the first of January is the ideal day to overhaul their whole life. Does this look familiar?

new year's resolution

There are reasons why this approach isn’t usually successful.

Setting and achieving goals requires a degree of self-control. Let’s call it willpower. What we know about willpower thanks to the work of psychologist Roy Baumeister, is that it is a finite resource. In other words, if you use too much of it, it runs out!  ‘Willpower’ is the same energy resource that is used for:

  • Getting ourselves to do things we don’t want to do (like exercise)
  • Refraining from doing things we do want to do (like having another piece of chocolate); and
  • Making decisions.

These are the things which deplete our reserves of willpower. If you’ve ever wondered why you stick to your diet religiously all day only to blow it at night, this could be your answer according to Baumeister. At the end of a long day of exercising restraint, turning up to your job when you’d rather go to the beach, making multiple decisions and concentrating on tasks, your willpower reserves have been depleted.

Building willpower

The good news is that willpower can also be replenished and one good way to replenish it is with food. It seems that glucose in the brain (note that glucose comes from any food source – this isn’t about sugar) is what refills our stock of this energy we call willpower. Is it any wonder that when you go on a diet and hence willingly restrict your food intake, that your reserves of willpower often aren’t up to the task… especially in the evening? Keeping your reserves stocked up with regular snacks has been shown to increase the energy available to stick to tasks, make decisions and exercise restraint.

The other important thing Baumeister has found is that willpower is also a bit like a muscle that increases in strength the more it’s used. By exercising self-discipline in small doses but frequently, we are positively reinforced for our efforts and our willpower increases. I guess if we go back to the energy metaphor, it’s a bit like our willpower reserve tank gets larger.

Decision fatigue

Most people don’t realise that the act of making decisions draws on the same energy reserves that we need to exercise self-control. Barack Obama is aware of the phenomenon and for that reason, he only wears a blue or grey suit every day to reduce decision fatigue. Similarly, having daily routines helps to conserve your limited reserves of willpower so you can save it for the more important tasks and decisions. For example, people who opt to exercise every day are more likely to achieve long term success not just because of the consistency of their efforts, but because by committing to a daily routine, they effectively take the “Will I or won’t I?” question off the agenda, thus conserving that willpower so it can be put to use in other ways.

(Remember, when it comes to making decisions, if your stocks of willpower are low, such as when you’re tired or hungry at the end of the day, you have less energy for negotiation or compromise and are more likely to revert to default options or lazy choices).

So before you make a long list of new year’s resolutions… remember these key points!

  • Rather than attempting to make several life changes all at once, choose just one goal at a time,  work on it systematically, and as new habits are formed and your willpower muscle grows, move onto the next goal.
  • As much as possible, reduce decision fatigue by building routine into your life. If you say you’re going to meditate (or exercise or have an alcohol free day) three times each week, then every day you are faced with deciding “Is this going to be one of the days or isn’t it?” Decide the days in advance, or better still, choose to do engage in healthy habits EVERY day.
  • Don’t expect to make good choices on an empty stomach. Keep your willpower reserves stocked up with regular food and rest.

In upcoming posts, I’m going to be adding to this series on goal setting with posts about:

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  1. […] already covered off in a previous post that most people choose to make sweeping life changes on the first day of the new year, and […]

  2. Ellen on December 29, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Thanks Cass! This made me feel more normal about not ‘feeling up to’ cooking dinner etc after exercising restraint (with food…or clients!). Looking fwd to trying to up my reserves. Great post xx

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

I'm here to help you find freedom from psychological struggles so that you can live your happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling life.

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