Considering the science behind willpower, Louise Dolphin offers a healthier option for achieving your New Year’s resolutions

There is something unsettling about this time of the year. The new year brings promise of new beginnings and fresh starts, that this year is going to be different. However, before we know it, the mid-January voice starts flexing its vocal cords.

Why would you go out for a jog tonight if it looks like it’s going to rain? What’s another biscuit when you’ve been good all week? I know you said you’d spend more time with X this year, but you’re tired this evening. The habits and routines of last year, those you were sure you were well shot of, suddenly creep back and you start to think, perhaps this won’t be the year the resolutions work out. Maybe it won’t be any different.

A New Year’s resolution is generally a promise many of us make to ourselves to do an act of self-improvement. However, a 2007 study from the University of Bristol involving over 3,000 people showed that 88% of those who set New Year’s resolutions fail. In 2012, TIME magazine suggested that the top five most commonly broken resolutions were, lose weight and get fit, quit smoking, learn something new, eat healthier and diet, get out of debt and save money.

Dr Claire Hayes, Clinical Director of AWARE, chose to address the concept of New Year’s resolutions recently. She highlights the harsh thoughts that can enter people’s minds when resolutions are broken, “You’re pathetic, you’re useless, you’re a failure, you can’t even manage to stick to your resolutions for more than two weeks.”

Dr Hayes believes a key reason these thoughts can torment us is that many people believe there is no hope in improving their lives. She talks about recognising and overcoming self doubt about keeping New Year’s goals.

Why do so many fail? Are some people just more strong-willed than others? Are some people just better at resisting temptation? Some of the earliest research on this came from the lab of Roy Baumeister in his Chocolate-and-Radish experiment.

Baumeister brought 67 undergraduate students into a laboratory filled with the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. The table before them held a plate of the cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some students were asked to sample the cookies, others were asked to eat the radishes. Subsequently, participants were given 30 minutes to complete a geometric tracing task (which, unbeknownst to the subjects, was impossible).

So, which group do you think persisted for longer with the task? Easy, I thought to myself on reading about the experiment. The radish group, have been primed for a harder situation, will last longer. The cookie group, having been gratified, will be lazier.

But I couldn’t be more wrong. Baumeister and his colleagues found that those who ate the radishes gave up on the puzzle after about approximately eight minutes, while the lucky cookie-eaters persevered for an average of almost 19 minutes.

It seemed that drawing on self-control to resist the cookies drained the radish group’s willpower for subsequent situations. In other words, those who had to resist the cookies and force themselves to eat pungent vegetables could no longer find the will to fully engage in another torturous task. They were already too tired.

Resisting temptation comes with a cost, in the sense that the radish group were more inclined to give up easily in the face of frustration. It was not that eating chocolate improved performance. Rather, wanting chocolate but eating radishes instead, and controlling these impulses, impaired successive persistence.

This may seem like a silly experiment, but in 1998 it told psychologists something groundbreaking: willpower, rather than being a strength or a skill, is actually a finite resource that can be depleted. These findings have been replicated in many studies and been cited in almost 2000 scientific publications.

This gets me thinking about how we frame the idea of change in our minds. Instigating change, for me, is often two steps forward and one step back. Particularly when attempting to implement difficult changes into stubborn human routines, there must be room for error and relapse.

Just because you break your resolution, it does not make the effort void. It does not change the fact that there were also successful attempts. Change is gradual and no effort is useless or futile. We all relapse in our resolutions. The key is in how we address those lapses.

If willpower is, as the Chocolate-and-Radish experiment suggests, a finite resource, we must be careful about when we choose to employ it. Therefore, New Year’s resolutions are exactly the wrong way to change our behaviour. Rather than lumping our desired changes into one month, we should spread them out over time.

Plans to address important issues in our lives can be made on any day, at any time of the year. Change happens gradually, but, as the saying goes “the smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.”