it’s still early in 2012, so let’s be optimistic. let’s assume you have made a new year’s resolution and have not yet broken it. based on studies of past resolutions, here are some uplifting predictions:enlarge this imageji leemultimediagraphicmemo to self: stop!readers’ comments
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1) whatever you hope for this year — to lose weight, to exercise more, to spend less money — you’re much more likely to make improvements than someone who hasn’t made a formal resolution.
2) if you can make it through the rest of january, you have a good chance of lasting a lot longer.
3) with a few relatively painless strategies and new digital tools, you can significantly boost your odds of success.
now for a not-so-uplifting prediction: most people are not going to keep their resolutions all year long. they’ll start out with the best of intentions but the worst of strategies, expecting that they’ll somehow find the willpower to resist temptation after temptation. by the end of january, a third will have broken their resolutions, and by july more than half will have lapsed.
they’ll fail because they’ll eventually run out of willpower, which social scientists no longer regard as simply a metaphor. they’ve recently reported that willpower is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control.
the result is “ego depletion,” as this state of mental fatigue was named by roy f. baumeister, a social psychologist at florida state university (and my co-author of a book on willpower). he and many of his colleagues have concluded that the way to keep a new year’s resolution is to anticipate the limits of your willpower.
one of their newest studies, published last month in the journal of personality and social psychology, tracked people’s reactions to temptations throughout the day. the study, led by wilhelm hofmann of the university of chicago, showed that the people with the best self-control, paradoxically, are the ones who use their willpower less often. instead of fending off one urge after another, these people set up their lives to minimize temptations. they play offense, not defense, using their willpower in advance so that they avoid crises, conserve their energy and outsource as much self-control as they can.
these strategies are particularly important if you’re trying to lose weight, which is the most typical new year’s resolution as well as the most difficult. the more you starve your body, the less glucose there will be in your bloodstream, and that means less willpower. because of this vicious cycle, even people with great self-control in the rest of their lives can have a terrible time remaining slim.
self-restraint can seem harder than ever because there are so many new temptations being marketed — high-calorie foods, distracting gadgets, time-sucking web sites. but there are also better strategies than ever available thanks to new research in both the lab and the real world, including vast troves of data from online programs for improving self-control.
before we get to the data, consider how one well-financed pioneer put these strategies into practice. it is not exactly a typical story — the hero is a hedge fund manager who could afford the ultimate in outsourcing — but it’s a good outline of the future of self-control for the rest of us.
doug teitelbaum was utterly self-disciplined in business and utterly unable to control his weight. he ran a hedge fund in new york and made fortunes turning around companies like barneys, the tony clothier, but he couldn’t stop himself from reaching nearly 375 pounds.
once, he’d been a serious tennis player, but he’d had to give it up because the weight put too much strain on his 6-foot-1-inch frame and legs. at the age of 40, convinced his own willpower was not enough, he looked for outside help.
he had a gastric band surgically placed around his stomach, and he began slowly exercising again under the supervision of jim wharton, a trainer on the upper west side who worked with professional athletes. then a new problem arose. after mr. teitelbaum’s company bought the planet hollywood chain, he had to go to las vegas to oversee the conversion of the old aladdin into the planet hollywood resort and casino.
it meant leaving home and living for months in a suite at the hotel above the glittering las vegas strip, surrounded by an endless supply of alluring food — all available 24 hours a day. mr. teitelbaum knew that his gastric band, the least extreme form of weight-loss surgery, wouldn’t save him from 4 a.m. room-service pizzas. he didn’t trust his willpower in the global capital of hedonism: the pounds gained in vegas would not stay in vegas.
so he and his trainer went on the offensive. to inspire him over the long haul, they aimed for him to lose 100 pounds so that he could return to tennis and play in a popular tournament for charity. to sustain him in the short term, they planned the foods he should eat in las vegas and drew up daily schedules for exercise. to make it easy for him to work out, one room in his hotel suite would be turned into a personal gym, complete with dumbbells, weight machines, exercise bike and elliptical trainer. but mr. teitelbaum still had doubts.
“i knew if i were going out to dinner every night, the diet would derail,” he said. “i knew i had to have a trainer to get me into an exercise routine. if i’m not forced to exercise, i’ll end up working instead. i have to be corralled.”
mr. teitelbaum took the next step in outsourcing willpower. he hired jim wharton’s son and fellow trainer, phil, to move into the hotel to oversee his daily regimen. every morning, mr. teitelbaum would weigh himself, breakfast on a protein smoothie prepared by phil, and then work out under phil’s supervision.
phil oversaw all the other meals, too, except for one day a week when mr. teitelbaum was free to eat whatever he wanted. after four months of this routine, he left las vegas 50 pounds lighter than when he arrived. he went on to lose the 100 pounds and more — he hit 190, half his former weight, and took second place in the tennis tournament that had once seemed impossible.
obviously, doug teitelbaum is not everyman. most of us can’t afford to hire personal trainers to monitor us around the clock. but anyone with a smartphone or a computer has access to outside help, and anyone can still follow his basic strategies:
set a single clear goal instead of resolving to “lose weight” or “eat healthier,” set a specific goal — say, lose a pound a week. and limit yourself to one big resolution at a time. if you’re trying to quit smoking or save money, don’t bother counting how manycalories you consume or burn up. with a finite supply of willpower, it’s tough enough to keep one resolution, as john c. norcross and other psychologists at the university of scranton reported in 2002 after having tracked people for six months after new year’s.
by the end of january, 36 percent of them had broken their resolutions. after that, the failures happened more slowly. half were still keeping their resolutions in march, and by july the success rate was still 44 percent — less than half, admittedly, but still impressive compared with a control group of people who had the same goals (like losing weight) but didn’t make formal resolutions. only 4 percent of the control group made progress.
“contrary to widespread public opinion, a considerable proportion of new year resolvers do succeed,” dr. norcross said. “you are 10 times more likely to change by making a new year’s resolution compared to non-resolvers with the identical goals and comparable motivation to change.”
precommit odysseus’ classic strategy, having himself tied to the mast, still works against modern sirens. besides the simple things you do yourself — plan meals in advance, keep junk food out of the kitchen, schedule workouts with friends, go to the store without a credit card — you can further bind yourself by e-mailing your goal to friends or posting it on facebook.
outsource you can outsource self-control by sharing your progress with friends through twitter posts about your weight or your workouts, or by making a formal contract at web sites like stickk.com, which was started by economists at yale. at stickk, you set the goal and have the option of naming a referee to enforce it. you also set the penalty. it might be just an e-mailed announcement to a list of friends (or enemies), but you can also put money on the line. you can precommit to paying the penalty to anyone you designate, including an “anti-charity,” which for a democrat could be the george w. bush library. (the clinton library is available for republicans.)
the more you precommit, the better you do, according to stickk’s analysis of 125,000 contracts over the past three years. the success rate for people who don’t name a referee or set financial stakes is only 29 percent, but it rises to 59 percent when there’s a referee and to 71.5 percent when there’s money at stake. and when a contract includes a referee and financial stakes, the success rate is nearly 80 percent.
keep track nutritionists used to advise people not to weigh themselves more than once a week — supposedly so as not to get discouraged by fluctuations — but recent research has shown that daily weigh-ins work better. self-monitoring is vital to any kind of resolution, and new tools will do the grunt work for you. scales like one made bywithings will log your weight on your computer and notify your friends (if you want). gizmos like the bodymedia fit armband and the fitbit clip can estimate how many calories you’ve burned by keeping track of your movements all day long. you can let all your financial transactions be automatically categorized by mint.com. after analyzing 2 billion transactions by 3 million users, mint’s analysts confirmed the benefits of monitoring: once people started tracking where their money went, they tempered their spending.
entrepreneurs are rushing to monitor just about every aspect of your life — your health, your moods, your sleep — and you can find dozens of their products by consulting web sites like quantified self and lifehacker.
don’t overreact to a lapse one reason dieters fail is a phenomenon formally known as “counterregulatory eating” — and informally as the “what the hell effect.” once they lapse, they figure the day’s diet is blown anyway, so they go on to finish the whole carton of ice cream, thereby doing far more damage than the original lapse.
tomorrow is another taste one of the cheeriest new findings from diet research comes from an experiment in which people had to resist a bowl of m&m’s. the ones who told themselves they could have the candy later had a much easier time than the ones who swore off m&m’s permanently. so when the dessert cart arrives, promise yourself that you’ll sample each of the treats, but just not tonight.
reward often if you use willpower only to deny yourself pleasures, it becomes a grim, thankless form of defense. but when you use it to gain something, you can wring pleasure out of the dreariest tasks. young people who seem hopelessly undisciplined in school or on the job will concentrate for hour after hour on video games because there’s a steady series of prizes. that’s the feeling to aim for in the real world.
if you quit smoking, earmark some of the savings for expensive meals. if your waistline shrinks, splurge on new clothes. one new exercise monitor, the striiv, will make donations to charity based on how many steps you take. other gadgets and apps will award points or trophies. even the tiniest and silliest rewards can make a difference. if you want your willpower to last all year, every little bit helps.
the findings columnist for science times and co-author, with roy f. baumeister, of “willpower: rediscovering the greatest human strength.”