Making Resolutions That Stick In 2012

Many have fallen off the New Year's resolution bandwagon soon after adopting a new diet or quitting smoking. So how can you achieve year-end goals and start the year on a positive note? Roy Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength , has some tips.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Next up, say, it's time for New Year's resolutions. You want to lose your weight or you want to quit smoking? You don't know how to make your New Year's resolution last more than, well, let's say a week? Some researchers say the answer may lie in strengthening your willpower, and my next guest is of them. Dr. Roy Baumeister is co-author of the book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength." He's professor of psychology at Florida State University and he joins us from Tallahassee. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ROY BAUMEISTER: Thank you, Ira. I'm glad to be here.

FLATOW: What do we have to do to get willpower?

BAUMEISTER: What do we have to do? Well, everybody has some, and so you just kind of manage what you have, you have to understand how it works, that you have a limited amount of it, that it waxes and wanes as you use it. And in ideal circumstances, you can build it up like a muscle by exercising it steadily over time.

FLATOW: You mean you purposely put yourself in a situation where you need some willpower to overcome it, so you practice it?

BAUMEISTER: Yes, you can do things - you start by making small changes in your life. In one of the studies we did, we just had people work on their posture for a couple weeks, and that then produced changes on all sorts of things that had nothing to do with posture because you just get used to correcting your own behavior and bringing it up to your goals and standards.

So some other workers found that people who do these little exercises, you know, you can switch - use your left hand for things you normally use your right hand for, and so on. If you do these over time, they can make you better able to succeed at quitting smoking and controlling alcohol and other things like that. That willpower, there's one resource that you have, and you use it for anything. So if you build it up in exercising one thing, it helps with the next thing.

FLATOW: Does changing your diet help you at all?

BAUMEISTER: Well, willpower is energy. It's real energy. It's tied into the body's food supply. So what you eat is the source of your food, which is why dieting is one of the most difficult things to exert self-control in, because you need to eat in order to have the willpower to resist eating.

But in terms of changing your diet, well, there's a nutritionist literature - in the laboratory, when we want to give people a boost of willpower, ironically we give them sugar, but that's just because in the laboratory we only have people for a short time and we need something that works fast. We recommend eating protein and other sort of healthy foods that your body can burn over a longer period of time to get energy from. That's probably the best advice in terms of diet.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Roy Baumeister, co-author of the book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength." Should we be taking on New Year's resolutions that, you know, we have the willpower to do them? I mean, that sometimes we might bite off more than we can chew - going overboard.

BAUMEISTER: Well - that's an important point, Ira. Remember, you only have one stock of willpower, and every time you try to change yourself, you're using some of that. So when you make a bunch of resolutions all at once, each one you try to do is to detracting from your ability to do all the others. So, you know, it's a good idea. I totally believe in making oneself a better person and so on. But do the things one at a time rather than all at once. Some people make...

FLATOW: So you're saying we basically have a storage house of willpower that we can deplete?

BAUMEISTER: Yes, absolutely. We use the term depletion very much in our research. It's become more and more used among the research community - ego depletion tied into the self, but, you know, we can think of it in ordinary terms as depletion of willpower. And yes, that happens to people every day in ways that can be, you know, measured in objective differences and how likely you are to give in to temptation later in the day after you've used up your willpower as opposed to earlier in the day when your stock is more there.

So yes, very much. It's one - it's important to understand how willpower works, which is why we wrote the book you so kindly mentioned. And, you know, use it once, I mean, that's why that the different New Year's resolutions will work against each other, but if you do them...

FLATOW: Too many.

BAUMEISTER: ...in a series, completing the first one will actually strengthen your ability to move on to the second one.

FLATOW: So if you want to lose weight - if that's your New Year's resolution, you should - you can gain more willpower by challenging yourself with the food you want to avoid. Would that be correct? In other words, if you want to strengthen your willpower, add to your reserve, and you see a brownie sitting there, you put the brownie down and say, I'm not going to eat that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAUMEISTER: Well, as long as you succeed at not eating it. But there's - there seems to be some risk involved in that strategy; if you give in, then that sets you back. But you - I would say if losing weight is difficult, and, you know, that's the most challenging thing, don't make that the first thing you do. Set a more realistic goal to, you know, make your bed every day or stop swearing in front of the children or I don't know what. You know, and then when you've made those changes and those are successful, then you can move on perhaps to a more challenging one.

Also, you know, we, like most of the research assessment, dieting itself, you know, going on a severe crash diet is not a good strategy. People lose weight and then gain it right back. What you really want to do is gradually make permanent changes in how you eat so that you can live in a long-term way with this food and still get the nutrition you need and still get the enjoyment out of eating. That's just one of the...

FLATOW: So take little - get little willpower victories, and they'll add up so you can tackle the big one, is what you're saying.

BAUMEISTER: Absolutely. I think that's a great way to put it, Ira. That's what people should do and much better than making, you know, five resolutions, trying to do them all at once and then getting nowhere with any of them.

FLATOW: Well, thank you for those tips.

BAUMEISTER: All right.

FLATOW: Roy Baumeister is the co-author of the book "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength." He's also a professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Thank you for joining us and have a happy New Year.

BAUMEISTER: Thank you, Ira. Happy New Year to you too. Bye.

FLATOW: You, too, and that's about all the time we have for today.

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