How to Increase Willpower: Formula for New Year's Resolutions that LAST
Simply saying something is our New Year’s resolution doesn’t mean much. The only way to actually keep a resolution? Increase willpower and take action. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to a New Year’s resolution. ANY resolution to change requires some willpower on your part.
Many people have plenty of desire to change, and many people are highly motivated to change. Yet, most of us fail to stick with our resolutions because we “don’t have the willpower.” Are we defective in some way? Are we just weak? Absolutely not! Willpower isn’t the measure of our ‘inner strength’ and character. It’s actually a muscle that we all have, and that we all have to learn how to use.
Sure, some people are born with a greater ability to use their willpower, but everyone can increase willpower. After diving into all kinds of data and research about willpower and the science of habit-forming, I’ve emerged with a plan. This step-by-step formula can help you actually KEEP your New Year’s resolution (or an any-time resolution) and make that change last!
What is Willpower?
Willpower is like a muscle in our brain that we flex when we want to take action towards our goals, or resist temptations. When our goal is to eat healthy food, going to the grocery store, prepping our meals, and resisting the urge to order pizza all require us to flex that willpower muscle. But, like any other muscle, we can’t flex our willpower forever because it fatigues and becomes tired. Really, we can only use our willpower for 3 to 4 things each day before it taps out! It’s not that we lack the willpower to change, we’re just overusing it.
Studies have tested this idea in many ways, all with similar results. For example, in one study, experimenters put cookies and raw radishes in front of participants and told one group they couldn’t eat any cookies. Then, participants had to solve a complicated puzzle that required some time and effort. The group who did have to resist the cookies gave up on the puzzle much sooner than the group who didn’t have to resist. Why? Because resisting temptation drains our willpower, and we only have so much willpower that we can muster.
We face temptations ALL THE TIME—more than ever before. Stores and fast-food restaurants are open for us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We can order just about anything online at anytime. Almost every aisle in the grocery store tempts us with some sort of processed snack or treat. We constantly have to exert our willpower and say ‘no’ to all sorts of instant gratification. But, our brains just can’t handle it. So, the best way to increase willpower is actually by conserving it!
Make a Resolution: You Can't Have Success Without a Goal
First, figure out what goals you have, so you know where to direct your willpower. What kind of changes would you like to make in your life? Start brainstorming and draft a tentative list. But, be cautious: this is only the FIRST step. Just thinking about a positive change we’d like to make—like shedding those extra pounds or running every morning—gives the brain a sense of false satisfaction. Those thoughts alone can satisfy our brain’s desire for instant gratification, so we don’t feel compelled to take any real action.
That’s why more than ⅓ of people who make New Year’s resolutions break them by the end of January! But, don’t get too cynical or discouraged—it’s far worse to not make a resolution at all. If you do make a New Year’s resolution, you’re 10 times more likely to actually make that change, in comparison to someone with your same goal and motivation who doesn’t make a resolution! It’s simple: you can’t have success without a goal.
A recent research study looked at people who all wanted to make a change in their lives, like losing weight, exercising more, or quitting smoking. One group (the “resolvers”) made formal New Year’s resolutions to act on those desires, while the other group (the “non-resolvers”) didn’t make resolutions. Among the resolvers, almost half of them (46%) had stuck with it after 6 months! But, only 4% of the non-resolvers were still successful after the same amount of time. So, there’s no guarantee you’ll turn your resolution into a reality, but not making a resolution pretty much guarantees that you won’t make a change.
Prioritize & Pinpoint Your Goal
Next, which of your goals are the most important in this moment? What do you most want to change about your life? Arrange your list in order of importance, and try to pinpoint ONE goal that’s worth the bulk of your focus and energy. Now, this doesn’t mean we have to “give up” all of our other goals and desires. But, remember: to increase willpower, we have to conserve willpower.
Trying to cut out sugar from our diet, exercise every day, AND pursue a new passion project all at the same time depletes our limited willpower resources. Even if we sincerely want to change ALL of those things, we’re less likely to achieve any of those goals if we spread our willpower too thin.
It's significantly harder to change your whole life all at once! So, which resolution or goal is most worth your willpower resources? We can increase willpower through practice, but we can also train ourselves to use less willpower by developing habits. As we start planning meals or going to the gym regularly, we encode those habits into our brains. And, we'll actually use less willpower to carry them out as time goes on.
But, it's important to choose your resolution—or which healthy habit you'd like to form—wisely. Research shows that some habits are more powerful than others, and can ignite a chain reaction that unlocks other positive changes in our lives: keystone habits. For example, studies reveal that people who start exercising also tend to start eating healthier. But, as a keystone habit, exercise even paves the way for seemingly unrelated habits, like spending less money!
This is because keystone habits not only increase willpower, but they also change our perception of ourselves. When we see ourselves as "the type of person who exercises," we also start to see ourselves as the type of person who eats well and spends less.
So, as you pinpoint your resolution, try to pick a keystone habit that:
- aligns with your values, and speaks to your culture.
- can pave the way for other changes you want to make.
- offers opportunities for daily and weekly small victories, which will encourage you to keep going!
Find Your "Why"
With any goal, we have a reason behind it. Do you want to lose weight to improve your health? Or to feel more comfortable in your own skin? Do you want to eat well so you can lose weight? To help recover from an illness? Or to model healthier habits for your family? Our reasons will vary from person to person, but we all have them. So, ask yourself: why do you want to make this change? It seems simple, but we CAN’T skip this step!
When things get difficult and we want to give up, that “why” can motivate us to keep going. And, research tells us that simply reflecting on our “why” can actually make us more invested in what we’re doing! When students in school valued a certain subject and wrote about why it was meaningful to them, they were more willing to do the work and even improved their grades. If you want to increase willpower, examine why your resolution is important to you. It can boost our motivation, and helps us to channel our willpower resources toward that goal.
Replace Bad Habits With Healthier Habits
Many of us want to increase willpower so we can stop a bad habit or cut something out of our lives. We may want to stop eating junk food, cut sugary drinks out of our diet, stop procrastinating, to spend less money. But, when our sole focus is on ‘getting rid’ of a habit, the only real action we can take is to constantly fight against temptations. On a strict diet, we focus on those off-limits foods even more because we can’t have them! Then, we eventually find ourselves waist-deep in a pile of empty ice cream cartons and candy wrappers…
Denying ourselves over and over is like pulling a rubber band tighter and tighter—it’s eventually going to snap (and it’ll hurt). Instead, focus on what you can do. Yes, keep junk food out of the house so you’re not tempted, or find an accountability buddy to help keep you on track. But, once a bad habit is automated and engrained in our brains, it’s incredibly hard to “break.” Science tells us that old habit will stay in our brains, so we need to build new habits to override them!
We’ll be far more successful if we replace old habits, or pair them with new, healthier habits. For example, replace your soda habit with drinking more water. Instead of trying to avoid junk food, try to eat more veggies. If you usually head to the vending machine on your break, start meal prepping so you have healthy food on-hand. Shift your focus away from saying ‘no’ and start saying ‘yes’ to the things you can do!
Be Specific & Realistic
A vague resolution like “eating healthier” or “exercise more” won’t do us much good. An effective, long-lasting resolution is specific and realistic. What exactly does “eating healthier” or “exercising more” entail for you? Specify and quantify the kind of progress you want to make! When or how many days per week will you exercise? How many servings of veggies or bottles of water will you have each day? If we want to increase willpower, we need to know exactly where to direct that mental energy. We should be able to see clearly whether we’re meeting our goals or not.
And, it’s important to choose goals that we can build upon—unrealistic benchmarks are likely to discourage us. It’s good to dream big, but recognize that getting there is a process. Instead, set a goal that challenges you but still seems achievable. If you don’t exercise at all, it’s unfair to expect yourself to go to the gym every day right off the bat! Maybe you commit to doing something active every day, whether it’s going for a walk or cleaning the house. Or, aim to jog for 10 minutes twice per week, then work up to 20 minutes, and then 30.
Also, we have to be realistic about cutting a bad habit out of our lives. DON’T tell yourself that you’ll never eat junk food again—it’s not realistic! Research suggests trying this trick: tell yourself you’ll have that cookie tomorrow or you’ll eat the potato chips later, just not now. Knowing we can “never” have something makes it more desirable. But, putting off that gratification temporarily makes it much easier for our brains to resist temptation!
And, be gentle with yourself if you do have a lapse or an off day. Research shows that small lapses don't significantly impact the chances of our success, and those lapses actually make us more likely to succeed.
Make A Plan, Set Short-Term Goals
Big changes only come from a series of small changes. Break a big goal into increments by setting short-term goals, then make a plan of action to work up that ladder. Start with small changes in your diet: replace soda with water for two weeks. Then, add a serving of veggies to your dinners for the next two weeks. Then, replace sweets with fruit for the next two weeks. Draft a tentative plan with milestones that you can work toward. It will give you some guidance, but it’s okay if your plan changes along the way.
And, making changes in smaller increments is one of the best ways to increase willpower. Because willpower is a limited resource, it helps to focus on one smaller goal at first. As that new habit takes a hold in our brains, we won’t need to exert the same willpower that we did initially! Then, with more willpower energy available, we can channel it towards our next short-term goal. Every accomplishment—big or small—gives us a sense of satisfaction, and our brain will want to keep seeking out that good feeling.
We can also increase willpower by viewing our accomplishments and self-control efforts as fun! In a research study, participants took a questionnaire to measure whether they had high or low self-control. They had to play with pieces of candy, put the candy in their mouths, but then leave it on the table while they worked on other tasks.
Those with low self-control viewed playing with the candy as work. And, they gave in to the temptation to eat it more often. But, high self-control people saw the task as fun and ate less candy. And, in another study, simply using the word fun in the experiment helped low self-control people exert more willpower!
Increase Willpower by Outsourcing It
Because everyone’s willpower has limits, we need to be proactive and anticipate those limits. What challenges and obstacles might you face on your journey? When we’re on a diet, we’ll be tempted by the goodies and treats we love. When we’re starting an exercise regimen, it’s tempting to skip a few days (and then a few more). How can you prepare for and handle those obstacles?
A recent study observed that people with the best self-control are those who use their willpower less often. But, wait…what?? The study showed that we can conserve and increase willpower by outsourcing it—put systems in place to make things easier for you. The people with better self-control set up their lives to minimize temptations. They didn’t have to fight urge after urge and deplete their willpower. And, because our willpower will fluctuate, we can’t leave tough decisions up to the chance of the moment!
Share the Willpower Burden
Conserve your energy and avoid in-the-moment lapses by sharing some of your willpower burden. Use your willpower in advance by setting up systems to keep you on track:
- Ask for Help: Let friends, family, and people you trust know about the changes you’re trying to make. They can check in with you and help hold you accountable. Tell them what they can do to help you, and lean on them for support! Plus, studies reveal that it's easier to build habits in groups because those supportive people bolster our belief in ourselves.
- Find Buddies: Whether it’s an athletic trainer, a counselor, or just a friend, find people who can give you a friendly push or offer guidance. A trainer or workout buddy can bolster your willpower when it’s lacking. A counselor can challenge you with goals and new ways of thinking. With other people on your team, you share the willpower burden!
- Plan Ahead: Pre-commit to exercise classes or personal training sessions so it’s harder for you to back out of them. Keep junk food out of the house and plan out healthy meals in advance so you’re less likely to give in to temptations. In particular, if you’re starting a diet, it’s crucial that you are eating enough food. Our willpower muscles are actually powered by glucose in the bloodstream, so when we’re hungry or underfed we have less willpower available!
- Make a Schedule: ‘Pre-commit’ to your resolution by planning out your time. If you’ve made a date with your workout buddy, you’re more likely to go to the gym. By choosing one ‘treat’ day for the week, it’s easier to eat healthy during the week since you’ll have something to look forward to.
- Share Your Progress: Tell friends and family about the strides you’re making. Post accomplishments or progress photos on social media. You don’t have to brag, but positive reinforcement from others bolsters our determination and encourages us! Share your progress in a way that makes you comfortable.
- Use Technology: There are SO many apps, websites, and computer programs that can help regulate behavior or track progress. If you’re going on a diet, there are tons of apps that function as food diaries and nutrition calculators. You can also find programs to help you log your exercise or track your spending. And, there are more elaborate programs like stickK, which can coach you, support you, and you can even wager money to help motivate you!
elf-monitoring is crucial if we want to make a lasting change. Otherwise, we have no way of knowing how we’re doing or what we need to improve. Track your progress and check in with yourself regularly! First, figure out what you're measuring. It may be your weight, the number of days/minutes you workout each week, or the food/calories you eat in a day.
It can help to keep track of these things daily—either in a journal or on a calendar. Or, use tools to help you, like a food diary, a pedometer to track your steps, or even online banking statements to track your spending. (But, when it comes to our weight, some people may prefer to check in weekly. Getting on the scale every day can be discouraging.) Collect measurements of your progress so you have some ‘data’ to analyze.
But, don’t focus on or overanalyze your progress every single day—set up weekly check-ins, so you're not discouraged if progress seems "too slow" from day to day. Progress happens in small steps! Take one day out of each week to sit down with your data and assess how you’re doing. Are you sticking to your plan? Or, are there areas where you could improve? If so, revise your plan accordingly with new strategies!
By setting short-term goals and measuring your progress regularly, you allow yourself to experience small victories. Those small victories help reinforce good habits in our brain, and they give us evidence that we can successfully make a change. Belief in our ability to change is crucial to actually making that change!
Reward Yourself Regularly
Remember, exerting our willpower wears down our self-control. Luckily, rewarding ourselves is a way to replenish that energy. Don’t let your step-by-step achievements go unnoticed—it’s crucial to celebrate that progress! Our brains are VERY motivated by rewards and prizes. In fact, we have a dedicated ‘rewards center’ in our brains that helps reinforce rewarding behaviors!
Even small accomplishments reward our brain with a flood of dopamine—our feel-good neurochemical. Then, our brain remembers that good feeling and learns to seek it out again and again. Dopamine plays a role in developing many habitual behaviors, including addictions. But, in this case, we can develop a healthy addiction to accomplishing goals and making progress! Our small victories pave the way for major changes over time, and we need small rewards to keep us energized and on track.
So, when you reach a milestone in your weight loss or fitness journey, treat yourself! You may choose a ‘treat’ day each week. Or, you can reward a major milestone with a “me day” that’s dedicated to something you really want to do. (Although, with weight loss and nutrition goals, it’s a good idea to choose non-food-related rewards.) Regular feel-good rewards will refill our willpower tank and teach the brain that our efforts are worth it.
And, we have to recognize that we will have cravings after denying ourselves over and over. Having a 'treat' day or allowing yourself to accommodate those cravings in some way is so important. Would you rather choose when and how you give in to those cravings? Or, will you wait until the cravings take over and overwhelm you?
Focus on Gains
Beyond those tangible rewards, many New Year’s resolutions are self-rewarding. Appreciate the improvements you see in your life, and focus on what you GAIN by using your willpower! Notice the increase in your confidence as you shed pounds or workout more. Pay attention to how much better you feel as you stick with eating well. Acknowledging these gains is another, deeper kind of reward.
When we’re in the pursuit of a reward or have something to gain, even the most difficult or annoying tasks become easier. Going to the gym, wearing sweat-drenched clothes, or choosing healthy foods can feel like torture at first. But, as we see gains in our health, wellness, and confidence, they become much less torturous. You may even start to like them….
When we’re in the pursuit of a prize, we increase willpower without even realizing it! Working overtime or an extra job is taxing, but we’re more willing to do it because of the payoff. Recognize that your hard work has a payoff. Don’t get discouraged or throw in the towel too early! Changing and building habits isn't 'easy'—it's a lifelong process that requires time and effort, but it does get easier. The rewards for exerting our willpower and being disciplined can often be delayed, but they will come.