Clarence Bass on why New Year’s resolutions fail, and what works

Discussion in 'Health and Fitness' started by Frederick Foresight, Jan 5, 2021.


    Q: You never write about New Year’s resolutions. Why not?

    A: I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. It’s common knowledge that they rarely succeed. What’s not well understood is why.

    If a person is not willing to eat sensibly and exercise during the year, it’s unlikely they’ll do so when the new calendar goes up. A better plan is to start gradually and spread resolutions over the entire year. Jonah Lehrer explained the problem with New Year’s resolutions in terms of how the brain works (The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2009). His explanation provides the underpinning for the gradual approach.

    Physiology, not character, is the problem, according to Mr. Lehrer. “Willpower,” he says, is an “extremely limited mental resource.” Most New Year’s resolutions, of course, rely on willpower. That’s why 88% of all resolutions fail, according to a survey of 3000 people conducted by a UK psychologist. Three main factors are involved.

    First, the part of the brain responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, has responsibility for many other functions. These include mental focus, short-term memory, and abstract thinking. This helps to explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat too many slices of leftover pizza. “A tired brain,” Lehrer writes, “preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.”

    An overloaded prefrontal cortex, in spite of best intentions, has limited capacity to following through on New Year’s resolutions.

    Secondly, willpower is a high-energy activity. It requires a well-fed prefrontal cortex. That can be a problem when we’re dieting and exercising. Starving the brain of calories, even for a few hours, Lehrer explains, makes it significantly harder to stick to a weight-loss regimen. Waning blood sugar can torpedo even the best of plans.

    An overeager dieter cutting calories a little too close is likely to have difficulty making wise choices. As happened in a study cited by Lehrer, he or she might be disposed to choose a snack of chocolate cake over a bowl of fruit.

    The final willpower drain involves negative thinking. Resolving not to repeat bad habits doesn’t work well—because willpower is weak. “Gritting your teeth isn’t the best approach,” Lehrer writes. “Instead, find a way to look at something else.”

    A simple example: Kids who are better at resisting the urge to eat a marshmallow—they are promised seconds if they can wait 20 minutes—are the ones who sing songs, play with their shoelaces or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud. “In other words,” Lehrer explains, “they’re able to temporarily clear the temptation out of consciousness.”

    Better yet, focus on positive action. Forget what not to do. Focus on what you can do.

    Don’t waste precious willpower worrying about your bad habits. Focus on realistic positive steps on the way to achieving your goals.

    What Works

    Use limited willpower sparingly by making small changes and building on your successes. If you’ve been inactive, begin with a walking program; any time and pace that feels good is fine. The important thing is to walk regularly; three days a week is a good place to start. Work up to 30 minutes five or six days a week. When you feel ready, add a simple strength training program twice a week. The workout should take 30 minutes or less. As your stamina and strength improve—and they will—you can add more challenging endurance training. A good target would be two days of endurance challenge and two days of strength, between two and four hours a week total time.

    Take your time; there’s no hurry. A reasonable timetable would be to allow a full year to progress from walking to a balanced program of strength and endurance. Walking alone will pay big dividends and put you far ahead of your sedentary peers.

    On diet, the biggest mistake is rushing the fat loss process. Remember to keep your prefrontal cortex well fed. Don’t allow yourself to become hungry or dissatisfied. Keep blood sugar on an even keel by eating regular meals. DON’T skip breakfast.

    The best plan is to eat a balanced diet of healthy foods; see Simple Diet Patterns for Health:

    Don’t worry about calories. For most people, replacing fatty, sugary foods with a balanced diet of wholesome foods will put bodyweight on a sustainable downward path. (Exercise is an important factor in making this work.) Take your time and you’ll be amazed.

    Don’t bite off more than you’re willing and able to chew. That’s very important—for diet and exercise. If you can’t realistically see yourself sticking to the plan, dial it back until you can.

    The only diet and exercise regimen most people are willing to do regularly is one they enjoy. If you don’t enjoy your training and what you eat, something is wrong. Change it. Try something else. Don’t give up.

    That’s a resolution that will work. It’s based on human nature—not willpower.
  2. Baron

    Baron ET Founder

    It really is the truth. Dieting successfully requires certain skills that must be practiced over the long term so that those skills eventually become habits. Once those skills turn into no-brainer habits that you just do without thinking, then you're free to start practicing new skills.

    It's very difficult to completely overhaul your diet and exercise routines just based upon willpower alone unless maybe you had a fire lit under your ass from a health scare or something like that.
  3. It's like in the IT team i'm working at the moment, the guy who does the most work loves almost every minute of it, the guy who does the least rarely enjoys the work, even though i know he is capable of doing a lot more than he does.
    Frederick Foresight likes this.