The science of self-discipline

It’s still January, and many people have already made, or are about to make New Years Resolutions (I’m in the ‘about-to-make’ group). So it’s helpful to find this article by John Tierney from the New York Times on how to improve your odds of keeping your resolutions. He goes to the science behind it all.

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.

Growing up I was taught that it’s too late when you’re in a tempting situation to decide whether or not you will give in to that temptation. You need to make up your mind before you are faced with that situation. This research seems to reinforce that idea. Those who don’t give in are those who don’t even go there.

One of the common arguments against resolutions (which I’ve used myself, I’ll admit) is that you can’t fail if you don’t try. While this is true, you also can’t change if you don’t try. And if change is your goal, then a formal resolution is a good first step:

“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.”

So there you go. Resolve with confidence. And then read the rest of the article to see other helpful hints. Much of it revolves around getting help with your resolutions, and even putting something tangible on the line. Thanks to the research quoted here, we no longer have to see ourselves as weak if we need help or have to trick ourselves into keeping our goals. We’re just self-disciplined enough to recognize that we need to to minimize the temptations before we face them.

Go forth and resolve! (I’ll be posting my resolutions soon, but you can always go see what my brother is up to in the mean time).

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