Last month, millions of people made New Year’s resolutions. Sadly, most of them probably failed before January was half over.
Why do New Year’s resolutions fail?
The reason? It has something to do with willpower. We see a lot of inspiring posts about willpower, like the ones below, on Instagram. And we know that willpower is needed to create real change in our lives.
Let’s dial in our definition of willpower and define it as: the ability to control our behavior. In her very useful book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. identifies three kinds of behavior most of us want to control:
- “I will” is about things we want to do, such as daily meditation.
- “I won’t” is about resisting behaviors that undermine our success and happiness.
- “I want” is about long-term thinking, and often requires us to resist a short-term want (more cookies) for long-term happiness (better health).
But if willpower is the raw determination to overcome obstacles and achieve our goals, it’s necessary but not enough to create habits that stick. That’s because there are a lot of ways (most of them unconscious) we undermine our determination and render it useless.
Willpower is Not Enough to Create Good Habits
Research shows that willpower is like a muscle: it gets drained the more we use it. So it needs support as we work to make it stronger, just as you might need a spotter when you’re trying to lift a heavier weight at the gym.
Research also shows that most people overestimate how much willpower they have, which makes this a good time to talk about self-awareness – and its role in creating habits that stick.
Self-Awareness is (Always) the Key to Habit Formation
Neuroscience has helped us understand how the brain works in daily life. We now know, for example, which parts of the brain influence the I will, I won’t, and I want behaviors.
Dr. McGonigal writes, “Some neuroscientists go so far as to say that we have one brain but two minds — or even, two people living inside our mind. There’s the version of us that acts on our impulses and seeks immediate gratification, and the version of us that controls our impulses and delays gratification to protect our long-term goals.”
That’s why willpower is so difficult to harness: one part of me wants one thing, and another part wants something else at the same time. Which one wins depends on a whole range of factors including fatigue, time of day, and — most importantly — how well we understand the very specific ways our own minds work. One of the keys to success here is that habit formation is not one size fits all – the best way to build successful habits is through this process of self-assessment and self-discovery.
This is why McGonigal and others, including the mindfulness researcher Judson Brewer, aim to help people become behavioral detectives who come to understand what makes themselves tick.
Since most of our choices are made unconsciously, it’s only by observing ourselves closely that we can understand why our good intentions to eat better or exercise more are so often undermined by an unconscious craving.
Charles Duhigg agrees. His very popular book The Power of Habit describes the extensive detective work he put into understanding his habit of having a cookie every afternoon. What he learned: it wasn’t the cookie he craved, but the chance to catch up with colleagues in the cafeteria.
Nearly all the experts agree: for most of us, eliminating unwanted habits and developing good ones requires paying close attention to our thoughts and patterns of behavior. Journaling and habit tracking can help. Additionally, meditation, as we’ll discuss, is one of the best ways to learn how our minds work.
You can greatly increase the odds of turning a New Year’s resolution into a regular habit by paying close attention to what helps you and what gets in the way. (If that sentence makes you groan, it might be coming from the live-in-the-now part of your brain that resists long-term thinking.)
Willpower Can Be Strengthened (and Supported)
The good news is that willpower can be strengthened and supported. Those are two different things: some practices can help us build more willpower, and others help us get better results with the willpower levels we have.
Here’s some of what we know can specifically strengthen or support willpower on a daily basis:
- Get enough food and sleep. There’s a strong mind-body connection with willpower. Stress, hunger, and fatigue are willpower killers.
- Exercise is one of the best ways to boost willpower. Even a daily five-minute walk can reduce cravings and stress, increase heart rate variability (that’s a good thing), and make our brains bigger and faster.
- Do the harder things in the morning. Our limited supply of willpower gets depleted as the day goes on. This means that it can help to do the thing that’s hard (going to the gym, for example) in the morning instead of waiting until the end of the day.
- Find your motivation. Try replacing a negative thought around a specific situation (“I have to stop skipping my workouts”) with positive motivation around a bigger life goal (“I’m excited about hiking in Vermont next summer”). A “vision board” with hiking maps and photos won’t necessarily work any magic, but it might be a great way to help you remember your big picture goal.
- Stop and get present. A distracted mind is easy prey to impulses and bad decisions— so it can help to take time out and do some slow breathing before deciding what to do next. This skill is often practiced in meditation techniques so that you are more inclined to use it in stressful situations.
- Plan ahead. Planning ahead can reduce the effects of the impulsive mind. Putting out your gym clothes the night before, for example, makes it harder to find an excuse not to exercise when you wake up.
- Avoid the trap of self-criticism. Resist the tendency to criticize yourself when you fall short of your goals. Shame and negative thinking work against us! Most self-criticism is the same loop we have in our heads that we repeat over and over. A quick exercise to work on this: spend 25 minutes to journal out your usual self-criticism. Then, go through the list, and write yourself a rebuttal. When you catch yourself in a moment of self-criticism, it helps to have this list handy.
- Find the support you need. Support from others can make all the difference. This might mean joining a class, hiring a personal trainer, or working with a friend to support each other in achieving your goals. (You could grab a friend, for example, and sign up for some Ompractice classes together.) Willpower can be contagious, so find an “accountabilibuddy” to help keep you on track.
- Make a contingency plan. What will you do when you’re having a hard day? In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about hip replacement patients, who have much better results if they get moving very soon after surgery. In one study, patients who made a very simple plan for what they would do when the pain got overwhelming had much better results.
- Meditate to boost your willpower. Specifically – meditation can increase willpower by improving meta-awareness. Read on for more on that.
Pro-tip: you don’t need to address ALL of these at once in order to get results. Just pick 2-3 to focus on, which will in turn start rewarding you in all different areas of your life.
Meditation is the Secret Advantage to Getting Things Done
In a previous blog post, we talked about how most of us spend the majority of our days in a kind of trance, operating on auto-pilot. In that state, we’re not aware of the multiple voices in our minds, which means that they get to exert a lot more control over us than we’d like.
Meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness practices can help us be more present in everyday life so we’re less likely to be sabotaged by unconscious thoughts and cravings.
And it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just DOING the thing brings results. In The Willpower Instinct, McGonigal writes that even what feels like bad meditation is actually strengthening our ability to focus on our goals.
Daniel Goleman and Richie Davidson report In Altered Traits on a number of studies that find that meditation increases our resistance to impulsive thoughts and increases what scientists call “meta-awareness” — our ability to observe and track our thoughts. That awareness supports almost anything else we set out to accomplish.
What it comes down to is something like this for most of us, most of the time:
If we make resolutions without mindfulness, we don’t really understand what’s going on in our minds that undermines our best intentions. Mindfulness allows us to see inside the box — to learn how we operate — so we have greater control over our lives.
Putting All This into Action (Key Takeaways)
- Resolutions (and goals) usually fail because relying on willpower to achieve goals isn’t enough, and is undermined by our largely unconscious thought patterns.
- Willpower is a limited resource, but it can be increased. Focusing on just a handful of key areas of your life can multiplying returns. Pick 2-3 areas from the list above to focus on this month. Write them out.
- Meditation is a proven way to improve self and meta-awareness in order to strengthen willpower. Committing to 5 minutes a day will help you turn resolutions into achieved goals.
So if you want to get ahead, have a seat.
In fact, if you resolved simply to make one single change, and meditate for 5 minutes every day this year, that one habit would be likely to provide benefits in the rest of your life.
If you want support, we’d love to have you take some of the live online yoga and meditation classes we offer every day of the year at Ompractice. Our guided meditation classes are a good way to learn new meditation techniques to strengthen a beginning practice. Because we’re all in this together, working to take care of ourselves so we can take care of everyone else, too.