Where There’s a Will…Raise your hand if you made a New Year’s resolution. Now keep your hand up if you’ve man- aged to stick with it and keep that resolution going. Okay, is your hand still in the air? If not, don’t feel bad; you’re in good company. Fact is, fewer than 10 per cent of us who have decided to make a New Year’s resolution have managed to stick to it, most of us giving up after about two weeks. You might be forgiven if you lay blame on a lack of willpower for falling off the perch; after all, if your resolution was to lose weight and get fit, how hard can it be to start getting up at 5am to ride 20 kilometres, hit the gym, then complete the ‘new you’ routine by drinking some- thing green that comes in a jar and eating something raw that doesn’t taste quite right? Easy, yeah?
In an effort to appease my curiosity into why New Year’s resolutions tend to fall by the wayside, I conducted a little experiment with my dog. Yes, that’s right, my dog. Let me explain my logic. My dog loves chewing things; he’s still a puppy and loves nothing more than a juicy Havaiana or anything resembling a sheep. So my research question is: “Does my dog display willpower?” It’s fair to assume that willpower is at the centre of all resolutions, so stay with me here. My hypothesis? That my dog will not be able to resist chewing my leather shoes. Method? I placed shoes on the floor on the opposite side of the room to my dog, observed the dog’s behaviour and measured with a stopwatch the time taken to find the shoes. The result? As anticipated, my dog chewed the shoes.
Before I analyse the results of my simple experiment, it’s worth taking a look at what actually constitutes willpower. Willpower is more often than not regarded as good old-fashioned self-control. Put simply, in a case to stop smoking, for example, it’s the ability to grin and bear the temptation until it passes. The definition is clear and is considered an easy application to most things we aim to change when making a resolution. Moreover, throughout society it’s often thought that those with more self- control are morally better off than those without self-control, leaving us striving to achieve the former. The roots of such self-restraint run deep and are the basis for many religious teachings.
However, there is often a continuous conflict between what we desire and our need for self-restraint. Feelings of guilt and shame can often arise from such conflict, and can only serve to restrict what we are trying to achieve in the first place. Some research indicates that there is a limit to how much self-control we can place on ourselves before self-regulation fatigue sets in. This can very much apply to athletes and the like, who self-regulate and focus to such extremes that they crack or ‘choke’ under pressure.
This may not be the case for our middle-aged mum whose resolution was to shed a few post-Christmas kilos, though. What is perhaps more important here is context. It’s often the case that people who associate themselves with having good self-control in the first place are in fact experiencing fewer temptations to begin with. Therefore, it’s not so much that it’s willpower that gets the job done, but the ability to focus on things that help you get towards the goal you’re after. If you enjoy the process of whatever it is you want to change, you will have a much better chance of success. In other words, if you know you’ll have a better time walking the dog than flogging yourself soft sand running, take Fido for a stroll. It might take longer to achieve your goal, but if the process is more enjoyable you’re more likely to stick with it.
Speaking of dogs, let’s go back to our canine experiment and see how it relates to us struggling to uphold our resolutions. For him it’s about temptation – if the shoe was there he’d chew it; if it were out of sight he wouldn’t. Sure, he’s a dog, but similar principles can be applied to us humans. You can structure your life in a way to avoid having to make a self-control decision in the first place.
Willpower is not a finite or essential resource and relying on it alone is unlikely to get you across the line. Let’s face it, change is hard and effortful restraint is not the key to a good life. I’m pretty sure that even my puppy knows that. That said, he doesn’t make News Year’s resolutions.