Ah, New Year’s resolutions. It seems the simple act of flipping a calendar from December to January rarely fails to awaken hope in the human heart. Stick to a diet? Cancel the credit card? Quit smoking? Yes, we can! But it takes more than a feel-good slogan (sorry, Mr. President) to follow through on a resolution, as the perpetually self-improving can attest. Let’s face it: if you struggle to eclipse MLK Day every year, you’re going to need a new plan of attack.
Enter Dr. Mark Muraven, a professor of psychology at the University at Albany. Muraven has devoted much of his career to studying the art (or, in this case, science) of willpower: the Department of Defense recently awarded him a $600,000 grant to examine the relationship between self-control and stress in veterans. The professor admits to a few weaknesses himself (like Little Debbie snack cakes), but he’s learned enough about self-restraint to offer up the following five tips for 2009.
1. Choose a goal you want to acheive. Sticking to a plan will be more difficult if your reasons come from elsewhere, whether it be friends, Dr. Phil, or the celebrity beach bodies in last week’s Us Weekly. “And it’s not a matter of motivation,” Muraven says. “You might really want to do something so your wife will stop nagging you about it, but if you feel forced to do it, it just takes more strength.”
2. Practice makes perfect, especially when it comes to willpower. Before you take on your actual resolution, pick a vice you consider less daunting — swearing, eating sweets, anything you feel you can more easily accomplish — and refrain from doing that for a few weeks. The exercise might annoy you in the short term, but it should strengthen your willpower for more difficult tasks later on. “We liken self-control to a muscle,” Muraven says. “When you get home from the gym, you’re tired, you just want to go to sleep. But if you take care of yourself, you’ll regain that strength and get even stronger in the long run.”
3. Tackle one resolution at a time. Dividing your willpower between two goals will likely leave you with the strength to accomplish neither. “We have a limited resource for exerting self-control,” Muraven explains. It’s important to practice self-control (see tip 2) before you attempt your actual resolution, not simultaneously.
4. Smile! A good mood benefits self-will enormously. If you’re suddenly hit by a strong urge to break your resolution, call a friend or throw on a favorite DVD — anything that will make you happy.
5. Keep careful tabs on how you fare in a journal. Research indicates self-consciousness improves self-control. “Just paying attention to yourself,” Muraven says, “is enough to become better at self-control tasks.”