“Tis easy to frame a good bold resolution: But hard is the Task that concerns execution.” - Benjamin Franklin
So true! No matter what New Year’s resolution you choose, your chances of success are nil without a strong dose of willpower. Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, spent years studying consciousness and free will in order to understand why people succeed, or fail, to reach their goals.
Partnering with John Tierney, a health and science journalist currently writing for The New York Times, they penned “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” Based on empirical evidence, it’s packed with advice that will improve your chance of sticking to any resolution, whether it’s giving up cigarettes, overcoming procrastination, getting out of debt or fitting into a smaller pair of jeans.
When Baumeister became a psychologist, willpower was considered to be nothing more than a “Victorian notion,” replaced in the 20th century by the “Realizable Wish” theory, which gave rise to such slogans as “Believe it, achieve it” and “Think and Grow Rich.” As Tierney points out, the catchy titles were a great marketing tool for selling books, but the theory did little to improve our bank accounts or health.
Over time, Baumeister’s experiments proved willpower is a mental energy that can be strengthened through exercise, in the same manner our muscles benefit from physical exertion. Unfortunately, willpower can also be depleted by physical illness or stress. Furthermore, having to make decisions weakens our willpower more than most other activities. And those whose careers depend on this ability normally see their willpower dwindle about three hours after lunch. Baumeister charted this phenomenon by noting the verdicts judges and parole boards handed down over the course of the day.
Why is that? Well, here is the biggest shocker in the book. The reason most resolutions disappear in a puff of smoke, or extra piece of pie, has more to do with biology than psychology, because willpower is “fueled by the glucose in the body’s bloodstream.” Glucose levels normally slump in the late afternoon, especially for those eating a typical American lunch. So woe be tide the defendant facing a judge or jury at 4 in the afternoon! It’s actually the worst time for anyone to make a major decision. It’s also when most people decide to go ahead and eat that candy bar or purchase an item they don’t really need.
I believe Chapter 2 is the most helpful part of this book. When you read, “Where Does Willpower Come From?” remember it pertains to all resolutions, not just dieting. It explains how the conversion of glucose impacts neurotransmitters in the brain. “When you eat, go for the slow burn,” Baumeister said. Eating low-glycemic foods, such as nuts, most fruits and vegetables, fish and olive oil, will increase your self-control throughout the day. Unfortunately, cheesecake and ice cream aren’t on that list, but that doesn’t mean you must swear off them for life.
That’s what I like most about this book. The authors don’t expect us to become super humans. With the exception of drug or alcohol addiction, they advise “never say never” when it comes to food or other bad habits. Then, they offer many ways to improve your chances of success. Here are a few; you’ll have to read the book for a complete list. “Sit up straight.” As odd as it sounds, studying two groups of students – one who forced themselves to concentrate on their posture and another who had the normal college slouch – showed the good posture group improved their willpower and performed better at tasks “that had nothing to do with posture.” Try it, especially if you spend a lot of time at the keyboard. I found it does help you focus more on the task at hand.
Next, make only one major resolution and then keep track of your daily progress, whether it’s smoking three fewer cigarettes a day, passing up an impulsive doodad or writing an extra 250 words a day. Go for small improvements over time; this works especially well for dieting and saving money. The authors are all for using computer apps that make recording your progress easier, because seeing a graph or chart of your success encourages you to keep improving.
Along with the research data, the book is littered with personal stories about famous people who have overcome addiction or reached goals most of us would find daunting. I found Henry Stanley’s story (“Dr. Livingston, I presume”) extremely interesting. It certainly proves that willpower alone can overcome even the most hostile environment. For procrastination – the curse afflicting many writers – the authors provide two entirely different strategies used by Anthony Trollope and Raymond Chandler. I’ve tried Trollope’s and failed miserably, but Chandler’s is so unique that it just might work.
However, the inclusion of David Blaine’s feats in this book seemed over the top to me. He is “the self-described endurance artist,” who performs extreme physical stunts that border on madness. I believe the average person will benefit more from lessons taught by David Allen, the productivity consultant; or Esther Dyson, the investment guru.
All right, New Year’s Day has come and gone. If your resolution has, too, I suggest arming yourself with facts, tips and inspirational stories by reading “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” Then, try attacking that vice again. Come on, do it before the Girl Scout cookies arrive!