Making and Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

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Psychologists Offer Tips to Strengthen Willpower

 by Nancy Goldov, Ph.D., Public Education Coordinator, 206-979-9743 

Seattle, Washington, January, 2017 — When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, willpower plays a huge part.

Willpower is tested every day, whether it is hitting the snooze button rather than going for an early morning run or choosing an apple over a cupcake at lunchtime. The decisions that lead to a healthier life are often challenging, and the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey has revealed over the years that not having enough willpower was the top reason people cited for being unable to make healthy lifestyle changes.

According to the most recent Stress in America survey, when it comes managing stress, only 47 percent of adults engage in active methods of stress managements such as exercising or walking, meditation or yoga, and playing sports. APA’s Stress in America survey showed that in the past five years, the majority of adults have tried to make a behavior change and many are still trying but in reality, people don’t always achieve their goals.

Part of the explanation for this may be that people struggle with having enough willpower. Willpower is the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. One reason adopting healthy behaviors may be so difficult is that resisting temptation can take a mental toll. Continually resisting temptation- or exercising willpower- can be like a muscle that gets fatigued from overuse. The good news is that, also like a muscle, willpower can be strengthened to help achieve lifestyle-related goals, such as eating healthy or losing weight.

If you believe that a lack of willpower is holding you back from achieving healthy goals, there are techniques that can help strengthen self-control. Psychologists suggest the following tips for strengthening willpower:

  • Focus on one goal at a time:Psychologists have found that it is more effective to focus on a single, clear and modest goal rather than attacking a list of goals at once or being too ambitious out of the gate. Succeeding at the first goal will free up willpower so it can then be devoted to the next goal. Focus on changing one health habit first, whether it’s being more physically active during the week or eating smaller food portions daily.
  • Monitor your behavior toward your goal: Research shows that regularly recording behavior makes people more aware and helps to change that behavior. Don’t let inevitable slip-ups derail progress. Make a reasonable plan to meet the goal and recommit each day to making progress toward that goal.
  • Seek support:Support systems have been demonstrated to help people reach their goals. Being surrounded with friends and family who will be supportive of the goals, and willing to help, can make a big difference. If people feel overwhelmed or are unable to meet their goals on their own or with their supportive family and friends, they might want to consider seeking professional help. Psychologists are trained to help with behavioral and lifestyle changes.  They can help address triggers that prompt people to make unhealthy choices, identify positive ways to change unhealthy habits, and develop new skills and ways of thinking.     

To learn more about willpower, please visit http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower-overview.aspx.  For additional information on mind/body health, visit www.apa.org/helpcenter and follow on Twitter at @APAHelpCenter. Please visit, Washington State Psychological Association, http://www.wapsych.org/

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The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes more than 117,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.