Resolutions Fizzling? Fear Not.

It’s that time of year: the old New Year’s resolutions are starting to falter, and people are sliding back into the low self-esteem they felt during Christmas dinners with their families. (Note that I’m managing here to be both presumptuous and a buzz-kill. What can I say? It’s a gift.)

But I learned some encouraging things about the whole resolution thing when I read the book Succeed by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson. And by “read,” I mean “aloud,” as in: I narrated it for Blackstone Audio last month. (This is why I love narrating nonfiction: I learn such interesting things! Sometimes I even retain what I learn, but that’s a subject for a future blog.)

Halvorson, who’s a social psychologist specializing in motivation and goals, tells us that the government actually keeps track of New Year’s resolutions. I checked out the website she cited, and sure enough, there are the usual suspects in the Top Ten list (stop smoking, lose weight, etc.), with resource links for government pamphlets on how to drag your sorry butt toward achieving them. Halvorson notes that the failure rates for many of these resolutions are stunning (e.g., 85% of smokers fail to quit).

But here’s the encouraging part, and it has to do with radishes. In one study of self-control, hungry college students were presented with two bowls each, of chocolates and raw radishes, and asked (depending on the group) to eat no chocolates and a few radishes or vice-versa. The researchers then asked the students to work on a very difficult puzzle. They found that the group that had been made to eat radishes and avoid chocolate had the least patience and self-control with this new task.

It turns out that self-control is a kind of “muscle.” If you overuse it, you can fatigue it (as the radish-eaters did, which is why they couldn’t stick with the puzzle). But if you do a little every day to pump it up, it gets stronger: for instance, in another study, people who used their non-dominant hands for some tasks every day showed more self-control in general afterwards.

Halvorson’s advice for resolutions (New Year’s and otherwise) include:
• Don’t overload yourself with “willpower” demands, or you’ll fatigue your self-control muscle
• Use incentives (non-food rewards for eating less; money for smoking less)
• Practice a small daily self-control task unrelated to your main goal, and you’ll do better with all your goals

I recommend Halvorson’s fascinating book, and not just because I recorded it. Honestly, read it in print if you want; whatever. But if you opt not to read / listen to the book, you can always go the slacker’s route, as I do: don’t make New Year’s resolutions to begin with! Less failure that way! It defies many wise proverbs and parables, I know, but it sure cleans the slate after the holiday binge.