Let’s face it, 2016 wasn’t an easy year. So what can we do to better prepare ourselves for the next 12 months? Let’s start with personal development, namely figure out a better way to keep our New Year’s resolutions. Advice from experts to fine-tune goals to be more specific is great. Short-term goals are more achievable, sure. But even when we commit to keeping account of our progress and being patient with ourselves, still we bump into obstacles at every turn.
The obstacles? Will power. As it turns out, the idea that the will functions like a muscle is not just an annoying phrase that successful people say to their less successful counterparts. According to research from the American Psychological Association (APA), exercising willpower depletes blood glucose levels, just like muscular exertion. Learning the mechanisms behind our behaviors can hugely affect our goal keeping success rate.
Free will. It’s the reason we get up in the morning. It’s the reason we stop smoking, stop bingeing, and the reason we curtail the myriad of other self-destructive “coping skills” we’ve accumulated throughout life. The APA defines willpower as “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long term goals.” Another definition stresses the idea of “conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.” Easier said than done.
One of the first studies to address willpower depletion was in 1998 by Roy Baumeister. In this study participants sat around a table that held a plate of freshly baked cookies and a bowl of radishes. With the aroma of cookies in the air, half of the participants were asked to sample the cookies while the other half were asked to eat radishes. They were then given a puzzle to work on for the next 30 minutes. The results found that the radish-eaters worked an average of eight minutes on the puzzle versus an average of nineteen for the cookie crew. The results led Baumeister to conclude that the use of willpower by the radish-eaters depleted their cognitive energy for the puzzle.
The underlying biology has to do with diminished activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. Researchers at the University of Toronto found people who had just performed self-control tasks had decreased activity in this brain region related to cognition.
Does this mean we should give in to temptation and eat the cookie in order to perform better? No. What it means is that we should remove ourselves from the temptation as best we can. We should also be prepared with healthy (low on the glycemic index) treats to maintain a stable blood glucose level rather than spiking it every now and then with processed carbs and sugars.
As abstract as the concept of “the will” may be, the more we understand it, the better able we are to harness its power. In a study of willpower depletion at Dartmouth College, two control groups of dieting students watched the same sad movie. One group was told to freely experience their emotions while the other group was instructed to stifle their emotional reaction. After viewing the same movie, the participants were offered ice cream. The control group who had used willpower to stifle their emotions consumed considerably more ice cream than the other group.
So, should we just give free reign to our emotions to avoid binge eating later? Not exactly. Awareness is the first step towards change. Certain situations require more willpower, like keeping cool during a holiday filled with tense political conversations with distant relatives. In a heated debate with Grandma it’s important to stay polite, so perhaps getting up for that second slice of pie was really just a physiological reminder that you’re exercising willpower. Once you get to the pie table, it’s very likely that a cup of tea with honey will do the trick to satiate the sugar craving (and it will take longer to prepare, giving Grandma time to engage in a new conversation). Luckily the holidays are over, and we can go back to our normal daily stressors better informed and with stronger resolve.
By consistently resisting temptation, we are effectively lowering our blood glucose levels, which in turn deplete our willpower. It’s a frustrating cycle, especially if your resolution is to improve your diet. It means that by the end of the day we are more likely to give in to unhealthy foods. Whatever your New Year’s resolution may be, just remember that will power does act like a muscle. It gets fatigued, but it also gets stronger. Research has also shown that people who are motivated by internal goals have a much higher success rate than goals based on pleasing others.
So what’s a person to do? Focus on one goal that you care about. Surround yourself with little reminders of why the long-term goal is worth more to you than the short-term temptation. If you mess up, take a big deep breath, let it go, and reset. Keep healthy snacks with you throughout the day. When you need a boost, grab some fresh fruit or a piece of dark chocolate. Cry at the movies. Keep your cool with Grandma. Drink some tea. And brace yourself for the coming year.
Change Photo by Nana B Agyei, “Change – Its A New Year,” use per Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 attribution lic.
Dusk Photo by author.