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Exercising Your Willpower

Navigate Research - Monday, December 14, 2015

Written by: Kelli Williams

For many the holiday seasons is synonymous with overindulging and overspending. So it should not come as a surprise that eating less and saving more are among our top New Year’s resolutions…every year. According to Nielsen, in January 2015 the top resolutions were: 
  • stay fit and healthy (37%)
  • lose weight (32%)
  • enjoy life to the fullest (28%) 
  • spend less, save more (25%)

While the majority of Americans set resolutions for themselves on January 1st, most are broken before the month is over. Tremendous willpower is required for each new resolution committed to. More than likely it’s an amount the brain just can’t handle, especially when five of them are set at once.

Willpower is powered by cells in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, right behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex is also charged with helping solve abstract problems, maintaining focus and controlling short-term memory. Like any other muscle the prefrontal cortex needs to be trained and it needs to happen gradually. Just like one can’t expect to go from lifting a 5 lb. dumbbell to dead lifting their body weight overnight, we can’t go from a diet of fast food to eating only homemade, organic meals starting January 2nd.

The reason most resolutions fail is that they are intangible, making it really hard for the poor, overworked prefrontal cortex to really grab hold and focus on them. But, luckily we can ‘trick’ our brains into getting better at this by developing (tiny) ‘habits’ instead of resolutions. For example, instead of saying that you will “eat healthier” (a vague resolution) you can start by developing a habit, like “try one new healthy recipe every Sunday” (a concrete habit). Or, instead of “get organized” you can start by simply making your bed every morning.

Author Gretchen Rubin has researched the process of creating and keeping habits and shares a variety of strategies in her book, “Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Ordinary Lives”. 

Two of the key takeaways are:

  • Stop Making Decisions. Every time you have to make a decision (should I go to the gym?) you tax your willpower. Instead, create fixed habits by having a plan that does not require a decision and is easy to execute. Doing something every day and having it on your schedule (gym every day at 7 a.m.) is often easier – and more powerful - than doing something every once in a while or when the mood strikes.  
  • Know Yourself. Rubin believes that people likely fall into one of four buckets when it comes to habits, based on how we manage internal and external expectations. The four archetypes are: Upholder (someone who tends to meet both outer and inner expectations), Questioner (someone who resists outer expectations but tends to meet inner ones), Obliger (struggles with inner expectations but tends to meet external ones) and Rebel (resists both outer and inner expectations). You can find out which one you are, here. She suggests that we do not try to change our tendency but instead design our habits in ways that will work for us.

At Navigate, we have gotten a head start on building good habits for the New Year with a company-wide workout challenge. We have committed to working out 4+ times a week through the end of the year, with all the workouts being publicly tracked. This challenge aligns with both of the takeaways above – 1.) The decision on what to do (workout for 30+ minutes) and how often (4+ times a week) was made for us (saving some precious willpower) and 2.) The public tracking is a great way to add external expectations – especially powerful for those Upholders and Obligers among us.

We will soon be overwhelmed with articles on how to best keep our resolutions. These are just a couple of ways that it’s working for us. Best of luck in creating and keeping your resolutions this year – just remember to make it easy for (or trick) your brain - it is a muscle that needs time to adjust, just like any other!