Willpower, free will, and New Year’s resolutions

Henry Ford Quote from schlueter7
(in Flickr CC, April 20011)

I’m not a great pronouncer of New Year’s resolutions, but it’s impossible for me not to see Jan. 1 as a date for turning over several new, healthier leaves. I usually decide to use this date like a starting gun signalling the beginning of a marathon

to try to lose weight, walk every day, stop procrastinating, and clean up a host of unfinished tasks. Invariably, I end up finding that just thinking about these things makes me too tired to follow through when the time comes. In past I put this down to poor self-control. I gave up after a couple of weeks, but vowed to try again in the spring.

This year I’ve discovered some good news about my failure to persevere: it’s not me!!! Well it is, but it’s not due to some character deficiency. It’s the way my brain is hardwired. There’s neuroscience research to explain my repeated failures in the willpower department.  Apparently, the very act of trying to stick to my resolutions sets up the conditions for failure.

Pie Extravagnaza from robstephaustralia (in Flickr CC Attribution 2009)

First, it seems that exerting willpower sucks up a lot of glucose.

From Dr. Kelly McGonigal at Stanford (2012)

“The mind-body response of exerting willpower literally fatigues us (Tice et al. 2007). … Trying to control one’s thoughts decreases muscle endurance (Bray et al. 2008).

… Simple acts of self-control both require and lower blood glucose levels.” If asked to perform 2 successive tasks requiring self control, participants performed significantly worse on the second one unless “given a sugary drink between tasks (replenishing their blood glucose levels).”

So it seems that if I even think about making myself get up and go for a walk, I’ll need a glucose-restoring sugary snack to help me better resist the next urge to eat something that is not in my healthy meal plan. Arghhhh!!!! All good advice to the contrary, if any of the tips and tricks to help me stick to my resolutions involve exerting self-control, scientifically I’m  doomed.

Apple Cider Donuts from manda_wong (in Flickr CC Attribution Oct. 2010)

Jonah Lehrer (The Science Behind Failed Resolutions, 2009) cites an interesting study which suggests that part of the problem is that trying to break too many bad habits at once places too great a burden on my pre-frontal cortex (brain region responsible for willpower). The result is “cognitive overload“:

“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.

… The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. … This research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn’t built for [this kind of] success.”

Lehrer cites another study (Baumeister 2007) which also relates the limited attention span of the prefrontal cortex and the resulting lack of self-discipline to glucose deficiency. The best way to keep my willpower in peak condition is to feed it real sugar. Interestingly, the brain can tell the difference between the real stuff and diet substitutes which are of no use whatsoever.

The final bit of research I have to offer is in the form of this fascinating video from Marcus Du Sautoy, Prof. of Mathematics at the University of Oxford (see article).


So if (1) my brain is making the decision to blow my resolutions 7 seconds before I consciously make the choice, and (2) it’s also driving me to consume sugary snacks to replenish the glucose I expend when exerting any sort of self-control, I guess the whole process is doomed from the outset and I’d be better off trying to figure out how to stop thinking of New Year’s as a time of self-renewal.

Is there no hope? Read the next instalment to see what I discover.