10 ways to stay strong in the face of tempting cupcakes, pricey shoes, and the urge to hit the snooze button instead of the gym.
By Sarah Mahoney
There’s an inevitable rhythm to January 1 at my house. I take down the tree, vacuum up pine needles, and start making my New Year’s resolutions. The list usually looks like this: Lose weight. Swear off TV and saturated fat. Eat salads. Call Dad more. Write that novel. Floss. By midday I’m worn out, intermittently dozing in front of a football game and swiping my husband’s million-calorie nachos.
It’s not that I totally lack discipline. It’s just that I don’t sufficiently appreciate what’s going on in my brain, explains Joseph Shrand, M.D., an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Self-restraint is a rational desire, which means it lives in the front of the brain, the section that’s most recently evolved and most vulnerable to being overruled by survival instincts. Pleasure resides in the brain’s most primitive part, which has spent millions of years learning to reward us with a deeply satisfying jolt of dopamine when we give in to these kinds of urges. And while that brain circuitry evolved to encourage life-prolonging desires like eating and sex, says Dr. Shrand, we now get a rush from giving in to anything we want, whether it’s an illicit drug, chocolate, or buying expensive purple peep-toe boots, even when the more evolved part of our brain tells us we’ll quickly regret it.
So how do you help the rational (i.e., your New Year’s resolutions) triumph over the pleasure-seeking? You need to outsmart it with these research-proven strategies.
1. Give It a Workout
I’d always thought of willpower as a steady, steely resolve that made some women triathletes and some (not my real name) couch-nappers. But it’s more like a muscle, says Marvin D. Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer at Hazelden, the well-known addiction treatment center. That means the more we use it, the stronger it gets — and quickly. In an experiment at the University at Albany — State University of New York, researchers asked 122 smokers who were trying to quit to exert extra self-control for two weeks, either by avoiding sweets or by squeezing on a grip strengthener for as long as they could twice a day. In the following month, 27 percent of those who were diligent about practicing their self-control exercise successfully kicked their cigarette habit, compared with just 12 percent of volunteers who’d been given a task that didn’t call for self-control.
To try this at home, squeeze a grip strengthener (available at sporting-goods stores for under $10) or a rubber ball till it becomes uncomfortable, then hold as long as you can. Repeat at least twice a day. Or, flex your self-control emotionally by trying not to tear up during a sad movie.
Just don’t expect to become the Wonder Woman of Willpower, advises psychologist and study author Mark Muraven, Ph.D. As with a muscle, push too hard or under conditions that are too challenging, and your resolve (like an overworked hamstring) will collapse. “If you’re very hungry, I can’t imagine that any amount of willpower will keep you from eating a cupcake,” Muraven says.