It’s no coincidence that roughly 25% of our New Year’s resolutions will fall by the wayside even before January is over.
Hey, it’s great if you want to start exercising, save more money, stop smoking, get better grades or spend more time with the family. The problem is that resolutions based exclusively on good, old willpower are likely to fall short. Goal setting is admirable and essential but typically not nearly enough to sustain the momentum necessary for achieving long-term success.
Why willpower is not enough
In his video, Emotional Intelligence for Success, Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno explains that willpower usually withers in the face of temptation. The key is to adjust your emotional approach and find a way to overcome the powerful lure of instant gratification.
“Humans … tend to discount the value of future rewards,” says DeSteno. “We overvalue pleasure in the moment.”
DeSteno strongly disagrees with academic research suggesting that bolstering your willpower improves self-control. To the contrary, he says the more you try to strengthen your self-will, the more brittle it becomes. And when willpower fails human beings are experts at making excuses.
DeSteno is not the only professional questioning the willpower narrative. In his piece, Against Willpower, addiction psychiatrist and Columbia University professor Carl Erik Fisher wrote that willpower is actually a dangerous concept. Accusing a chronic drinker of simply not having the desire to stop, for instance, dismisses the emotional and psychological components that likely require therapeutic intervention. Alcoholics Anonymous meeting rooms are packed with people whose willpower failed.
The power of mindful awareness
Does a dieter’s inability to resist a delicious chocolate chip cookie mean he lacks willpower? Not really, particularly if that individual has the “willpower” to wake up early every morning and go to work. DeSteno suggests that the ability to delay instant gratification – saying no to that sweet treat – requires a different approach. Focusing on your feelings – what’s really going on inside – and truly embracing the possibility of a future payoff can help you resist short-term temptations.
“The power of emotions enhancing self-control works because it’s not coming from the top down,” DeSteno says. “It’s not trying to overrule or overcome a desire that we have. It’s changing the nature of that desire. It’s working from the bottom up.”
Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and addiction expert, also is a strong proponent of “mindful awareness.” In his video, A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit, Brewer explains that human beings instinctively learn through a “trigger, behavior, reward” pattern. So instead of automatically reaching for a candy bar when you’re feeling a little down, Brewer recommends that you examine your thoughts and emotions in the moment.
Dr. Fisher goes as far as to suggest that maybe it’s time to abolish the whole willpower concept. That would certainly get a lot of us off the hook.