Why? Because according to several studies in the field of will power and New Year’s resolutions, it appears that the more you try to change, the less permanent change there will be.
So surprise, surprise. Humans don’t have the best willpower. Turns out, when we overload our brains with stress and goals, we’re way less likely to follow through on a new habit, lose weight, or quit smoking. When it comes to getting rid of bad habits and creating new habits, it appears that doing one thing at a time is best.
I really recommend reading this article. Even if you’re not planning to go into 2010 with a resolution, everyone should understand how their minds work. Especially when it comes to personal development and being the best you. The studies alone are worth reading about (some interesting stuff about food, eating, and will power).
And for those who’re planning on losing weight, there’s some really interesting facts and tips in here.
Personally, I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions. My philosophy is, if you have a new practice or goal you want to start working on, why the heck would you wait for the new year? Get started now.
Blame It on the Brain
By Jonah Lehrer
The latest neuroscience research suggests spreading resolutions out over time is the best approach
Willpower, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it’s an extremely limited mental resource.
Given its limitations, New Year’s resolutions are exactly the wrong way to change our behavior. It makes no sense to try to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time, or to clean the apartment and give up wine in the same month. Instead, we should respect the feebleness of self-control, and spread our resolutions out over the entire year. Human routines are stubborn things, which helps explain why 88% of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman. Bad habits are hard to break—and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once.
Some simple tricks can help. The first step is self-awareness: The only way to fix willpower flaws is to know about them. Only then can the right mental muscles get strengthened, making it easier to succeed at our annual ritual of self-improvement.
The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead. While this bit of tissue has greatly expanded during human evolution, it probably hasn’t expanded enough. That’s because the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about besides New Year’s resolutions. For instance, scientists have discovered that this chunk of cortex is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Asking it to lose weight is often asking it to do one thing too many.
In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.
Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.
This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza. (In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce measures of self-control, as all the stimuli stressed out the cortex.) A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.