How Not to Keep a Resolution

Before you commit to those New Year’s resolutions, you might want to read Jonah Lehrer‘s recent article on the limitations of willpower. “Most of us assume that self-control is largely a character issue,” he writes, “and that we would follow through on our New Year’s resolutions if only we had a bit more discipline. But 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 success.” Instead of trying to lose weight, quit smoking, and pay off your credit cards all at once, Lehrer suggests spreading those resolutions out so as not to overtax the brain. [%comments]


When you run an experiment and find that a certain condition makes a person twice as likely to fail, that means the condition makes it harder to succeed, not that it makes success impossible.

In fact, it proves the opposite, that success is still possible . . . but more difficult.

Jonathan Finegold Catalan

Another thing worth suggesting is to develop milestones for your resolutions. Nothing is more disheartening than a goal which takes seemingly forever to complete. Setting milestones, no matter how minor they may be (or, even non-existant; as in, milestones which may not represent progress, at all!), will at least give the sensation that you are progressing and it will make you more willing to carry through until the end of your resolution.

Steven F.

Here is the behavioral pattern that screws up people's New Years resolutions: People use an arbitrary date to justify their procrastination because they need to relive the guilt from their failure that is guaranteed to ensue.

Why New Years? Why not now?

Incremental change, although slow, is the best way to change negative behaviors. Everyone is so fixated on the brand new you that they don't realize that the real change is just in the decisions one makes. People always fail to realistically match their expectations with how they actually make their decisions. Therefore, people need an arbitrary date to relieve them from their failure because after all, "there's always next year."

John Lehrer is right: we always underestimate our capacity for willpower.

Steven F.

Oops...I mean overestimate. We always overestimate our capacity for willpower.


Jonathan and Steven have summed it up nicely. Though Steven I might make a case for people "underestimating their capacity for willpower". How else to explain people coached to start a task and complete a task when they didn't think they could do it in the first place.

Swamy Saran Atul

Think of it as an annual review of your personal growth. With this review, we set goals for the coming year(s). Our employers, our governments, our schools, all engage in this yearly activity. I think we're conditioned into this process. Then we pick a comfortable date; 1st Jan for most, anniversaries for some.


I decided to try a New Year's experiment. Start behaving before the New Year the way in which I plan to behave thereafter. Has it worked? Yes, somewhat, a bit or not altogether. the other day my daughter behaved as she normally does and instead of getting angry as I usually do or frustrated, I made a deal with her where she would benefit if she adhered to my request i.e., semi-requirement. She did (so long as I was not asking for perfection) and we both ended up happier for it. so when it comes to teenagers, there's a bit of hope for us all as far as not keeping a resolution. IT is in our genes to defy the g-ds.

Lee, Naturalized since Y2K

I wonder about the accuracy of the muscle metaphor.

Muscles can be trained and differs between people. I can personally curl 50lbs while my buddies at the gym range between 20lbs to 80lbs. During my college heydays I can max at 70lbs.

Can brain be trained to have more willpower like muscles? Is there a vast different between people?


Well, I wouldn't say that a brain can be trained, but we do now know that the brain is a neural net and that some paths are strong than others. Reinforcing some paths, and letting others die off is how our brain changes, how we learn -- or so I understand the theory!

So, the more willpower you get, the more ingrained that becomes, the more you get the free will (hehe) to reinforce that network. Dunno, my quess.