It’s not just you, it happens to every one of us. Every year we make a shiny list of New Year’s resolutions and two weeks later we watch as one by one they crash and burn. Then we tell ourselves “I have no willpower, I’ll never fix my life”, and shuffle off disconsolately to the couch with a bag of potato chips and a dwindling self-image.
Where do we go wrong? If you think it’s because you didn’t do enough, scientists say you’re wrong. You actually tried to do TOO much, and thereby doomed yourself to fail. But how?
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal: “Bad habits are hard to break and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once.” The part of the human brain where willpower resides has only a limited amount of bandwidth. Ask it to concentrate on one or two simple tasks, no problem. But, according to the article, research by psychologist Richard Wiseman reveals that when we make long, sweeping lists of resolutions, including “lose weight”, “exercise more”, “quit smoking”, “stop cursing” we’re creating a greater load than our willpower center can bear.
The seat of willpower is the prefrontal cortex, one of the most seriously over-worked areas of our brains. According to the Journal:”scientists have discovered that this chunk of cortex is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems.” In other words, our prefrontal cortex is in charge of much of what we do in a day. Now in addition, we want it to remember that even though we love French fries, cigarettes, vegging out and the occasional naughty word, we can’t do any of it anymore. For your brain, it’s not even an issue of willpower; it just can’t remember everything you’re expecting of it.
That’s why we often find the half-eaten doughnut in our hand before we even recall that it’s now verboten.
As the Journal notes, “Most of us assume that self-control is largely a character issue, and that we would follow through on our New Year’s resolutions if only we had a bit more discipline. But this research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited.”
The good news? It really isn’t your fault you can’t do a complete lifestyle turnaround on January 1st. But does that mean we should just resign ourselves to a lifetime of overeating, smoking, sloth and intemperate language? No, but we can make self-improvement a lot easier on ourselves, and a lot more attainable simply by making much smaller resolutions!
For example, don’t say, “I’m going to quit smoking,” by all accounts one of the very toughest habits to break. Instead, make that resolution,”Instead of taking a smoke break every two hours, I’m going to make it every three hours.” Once you’ve ingrained this new habit, and cut out four to five cigarettes per day in the process, only then do you progress to, “I’m going to only smoke every four hours,” or whatever next step you feel is achievable. You’re aiming for the same destination, but by breaking the process into achievable micro-steps, you’ve made it much more likely you’ll actually get there.
“Great!” you say, “but how does that help me with the nation’s #1 resolution to lose weight?” Science can help you there too.
A 2007 experiment by Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister “found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exert self-control. Willpower, in other words, requires real energy.”
What does that mean for you? It’s not a lack of willpower at work when you let yourself get too hungry, and then overeat as a result. When you’re hungry your brain is fighting the willpower battle on two fronts: it can’t focus on your desire to lose weight, and it’s actively telling you to eat as much as you can.
Your brain doesn’t want you to starve and you don’t enjoy it either. Therefore, if you’re serious about losing weight maybe grazing on lower-calorie choices throughout the day, rather than going the old-fashioned, draconian three meals a day and NO SNACKS will not only be more enjoyable, but more successful too!