Five Things You Need to Know About Willpower for a Successful New Year’s Resolution

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A lack of understanding of the fundamental nature of willpower helps explain why approximately 80% of those that make a New Year’s resolution will admit defeat by February. They will look at their list and blame their lack of willpower when they should be blaming their list, and their lack of focus. No one has enough willpower for that list. Our willpower is severely limited, and every demand for self-restraint draws from a single source. Sometimes a single willpower challenge will feel like one demand too many.

Here is What You Need to Know about Willpower:

  1. All your willpower demands draw from a single inner reservoir that depletes with use.
  2. The more simultaneous demands you place on your willpower, the quicker your willpower supply will evaporate and leave you naked to temptation.
  3. Our willpower is highest in the morning and depletes as the day wears on.
  4. The best use of our willpower is to eliminate temptations BEFORE our willpower reserves run out, so there is nothing to indulge our desires.
  5. Habits don’t drain our willpower reserves.

All your willpower demands draw from a single inner reservoir that depletes with use. In your excitement to see quick results, you’ll be tempted to try to install two or three new habits at once. Don’t fall into that trap. It will dilute your focus and willpower. Numerous clinical studies have demonstrated that willpower is a finite resource that depletes with use. Renowned clinical psychologist Roy Baumeister’s famous Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment coined the phrase “Ego Depletion” and birthed the modern concept of willpower as a finite resource that depletes with use. [i]

During the first part of the experiment, Baumeister kept the 67 study participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies and then taunted them further by showing them the source of the delicious aromas alongside other chocolate-flavored confections. Some participants were allowed to indulge, but others, whose self-control was being tested, were asked to eat radishes instead. The participants were subsequently asked to participate in a supposedly unrelated test of persistence in solving complicated puzzles; which unbeknownst to the participants had no solutions. The group that didn’t have to exert self-control to resist the cookies averaged 20-minutes before giving up on the unsolvable puzzles. The radish-eaters gave-up in less than half the time, averaging a mere 8-minutes.  This experiment and others like it have made the concept of ego depletion widely accepted by the psychological community.

The more simultaneous demands you place on your willpower, the quicker your willpower supply will evaporate and leave you naked to temptation.

Numerous ego depletion studies examining the cause of peoples’ willpower failures have demonstrated the folly of taking on more than one willpower challenge at a time, but unfortunately, that is precisely what most people do. People who resolve to quit smoking,  begin a new diet and exercise program, and reduce their alcohol consumption concurrently tend to fail at all four endeavors. All of our willpower demands pull from a single source. If you have ever tried to adopt a new habit or break an old one, you know how much willpower it requires. You have only one supply of willpower to draw from, so every additional commitment undermines all of the othersThe willpower resources you allocate to one challenge limits the resources you can commit to the others, leaving yourself much more vulnerable to temptation.  It is like making the colossal mistake of choosing to fight a war on two fronts.  Fighting a war on two fronts is a losing military strategy because the resources you allocate to one front limits the resources you can commit to the other, leaving both fronts unnecessarily vulnerable.

Even the most motivated individuals will eventually run out of willpower when they place so many simultaneous demands on it. Research has likewise shown that people attempting to control their alcohol consumption tend to fail on days in which they are forced to exert more self-control than usual in areas unrelated to their drinking. Personal and professional commitments that require us to make difficult decisions and exercise self-control are already depleting our willpower, so taking on more than one willpower challenge at a time is a huge mistake.

“The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” -Confucius.

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3) Our willpower is highest in the morning and depletes as the day wears on.

When we wake up in the morning, our willpower is at its peak. Our willpower reserve is like our cellphone battery. When we get adequate rest, we begin the day with a fully charged battery. One of the best things we can do for our willpower, health, and vitality is to get at least 7-hours of sleep each night. Clinical studies have demonstrated that most people need between 7.5 and 8.5 hours of sleep each night.[ii] The easiest way to be better is to be better rested. We do our best when we feel our best.

As the day wears on, our willpower depletes, eroding our ability to discipline our behavior. Stress, hunger, and fatigue are like energy-hungry apps that quickly drain our willpower reserves leaving us naked to temptation. The more temptations we encounter, the more self-control we must exercise throughout the day, the quicker our willpower will evaporate.

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4) The best use of our willpower is to eliminate temptations BEFORE our willpower reserves run out, so there is nothing to indulge our desires.

Willpower is best used to shape our environment to eliminate the need to apply it continuously. We want to remove temptations from our environment to conserve our willpower, so we have more of it to overcome the temptations that are outside our control. If there is no junk food in your house, you won’t be tempted to eat it after a long stressful day. If your gym clothing is laid out the night before, you will be more likely to work out in the morning. If you have meals ready to eat in your freezer, you’ll be less likely to order takeout. If you have a difficult time getting up early, putting your alarm clock somewhere that forces you to get out of bed will decrease your likelihood of hitting the snooze.  If you want to promote disciplined behavior, like eating healthy, you want to make it as easy as possible. If you want to discourage bad behavior, you want to erect obstacles to make it more difficult to do.

The most common excuse I hear from people for not removing all the junk food from their home is that they don’t want to “deprive their children.” Deprive them of what exactly; a lifetime of sugar addiction? Let’s address this common excuse that causes so many dieters to fail to lose weight because at the end of a long stressful day their willpower left them naked to temptation. Losing weight is a battle of inches, these little indulgences are often the difference between success and failure.

The first thing I would point out to you is that you are arguing to feed your child “junk” food; food that is full of High-fructose corn syrup which was designed by greedy food manufacturers to reduce the foods satiety so your child will eat copious amounts of their product. You don’t want to keep these items in your home because it will lead to overconsumption. It is much better to purchase these things in small quantities to avoid over-consumption, for example; ordering an ice cream cone is better than bring a container of ice cream home. Desserts should be an occasional indulgence, not a daily expectation. Your child might be able to eat junk food without becoming overweight, but why would you want them to develop the habit of eating junk food? Why would you want to encourage a sugar addiction? If you cannot get rid of the junk food in your home, stop blaming your children. Having children in your home should be one more reason to get rid of the garbage, not keep it stocked in your pantry.

Shaping your environment isn’t restricted to your physical surroundings. How you structure your day, is a powerful way of shaping your environment. Break up your day into periods dedicated to specific tasks. When that time arrives, begin. Don’t hesitate. The moment you pull back, your mind will immediately start to magnify the difficulty of the task. This cognitive bias, which magnifies our fears and discomfort, is called the spotlight effect.[iii]

5) Habits don’t drain our willpower reserves.

Habits are powerful for numerous reasons, not the least of which, they don’t rely on willpower. Habits are behaviors we have executed so many times they don’t require any willpower. Our minds essentially operate on autopilot and the action flows effortlessly. My coworkers often tell me that I am so disciplined for working out each day during my lunch hour. It isn’t discipline or willpower that gets me to the gym; it is the habit. I struggle with willpower as much as anyone. My military background and having graduated from the United States Military Academy may lead you to believe I am a paragon of willpower and discipline, but I struggle with it, like everyone else. My struggles with willpower inspired my study of willpower and habits.

The more we understand willpower, the more successful we will be. Self-control is the best predictor of success as demonstrated by the famous “Marshmallow Test” administered to children between the ages of three and five. Children that were able to wait for 15-minutes to receive an additional marshmallow did better in school, got higher SAT scores, had higher self-esteem and better emotional coping skills, and were less likely to abuse drugs. No other test with adolescent participants has been so predictive of future success.

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Learn more, suggested reading:

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success

The Willpower Instinct is probably the most practical of the three, here is a video of the author explaining some of the most powerful tools you can use to activate your Willpower Instinct.

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[i] Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength Penguin Press; 1 edition (September 1, 2011)

[ii] National Sleep Foundation, How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? National Sleep Foundation, 2018

[iii] Mel Robbins, The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage, Savio Republic (February 28, 2017).


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