This time last year, my actions were slowly slipping out of control. I ate too much junk food, watched Downton Abbey instead of hitting the gym, and slept past my alarm for hours every day. Temptations were ubiquitous, and my self-control was fading one cupcake at a time.
Self-control is more crucial today than it has ever been. According to Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, “It’s not that we have less willpower than we used to, but rather that modern life immerses us daily in a set of temptations far more evolved than we are.” Fast food restaurants beckon at every corner and entertainment options have become limitless. These trends are not going to reverse—it’s our behavior that must change.
The annual Stress in America survey shows that lack of willpower is consistently cited as the top obstacle to lifestyle changes. I wanted to improve my lifestyle, but how would I develop willpower?
Armed with Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which discusses decades of experiments on self-control, I designed my own year-long experiment where each month consisted of a different willpower challenge.
My task for January was to make one—and only one—resolution for each month of 2014. A litany of New Year’s resolutions is bound to fail, and the resulting sense of defeat becomes a roadblock in the path to self-improvement. The monthly tasks were tailored to my personal development goals and to special events in 2014—including a new job and my sister’s wedding.
Note that I did not make a list of New Year’s resolutions. According to Baumeister, “Because you have only one supply of willpower, the different New Year’s resolutions all compete with one another. Each time you try to follow one, you reduce your capacity for all the others.” Those who make just one New Year’s resolution are more likely to succeed.
February was a month of no chocolate. But how could I shun my favorite food in the world? I was convinced I would fail. To improve the odds, I signed a commitment contract on stickK.com where every time I tasted the forbidden treat, a $20 donation would go to charity. And here’s the rub: it would go to a charity whose mission I despised. According to stickK.com, people who draw up a contract without a financial penalty succeed only 35% of the time, whereas those with a penalty triumph 78% of the time. Then I assigned my fiancé as a referee—he independently reported on my progress every week. Involving others makes a huge psychological difference since public commitment influences behavior more than a private promise.
The results? I erred only once—on the first day—when I instinctively lunged at a chocolate chip cookie. And I couldn’t hide it from my fiancé since I had snatched the cookie from his fingers. It’s the most expensive cookie I’ve ever had—after factoring in the $20 donation to the National Rifle Association (NRA). After that it became surprisingly easy to refrain from chocolate.
Buoyed by the relative success of my first resolution, I challenged myself again in March. This time, I would change my nocturnal nature by waking up at 6a.m. every weekday rather than my natural waking hour of 8a.m. The goal was too ambitious. I managed for the first two days and consistently failed after that. For the rest of the month, I woke up every day knowing that I had failed before the day even started. It was an awful feeling.
It’s a good idea to build early success by setting easier goals at the start. Willpower increases with effort and I didn’t have it just one month into the experiment. Close to giving up, I wrote off March as a failure. I would give the experiment one more month.
My April goal was a deliverable, as opposed to a change in behavior. I never had time to write, and my resolution was to pen an article I was proud of. Incredibly, once I set my one and only goal for that month, I also found the hours. I wrote on the bus, train, plane—anywhere, anytime. I blew past my goal and ended up writing two articles. Both were rejected by editors, but so what? I was still proud of them. Writing has become a lasting habit since that resolution in April showed me just how much I enjoy it. The success renewed my faith in the merits of willpower, and I was back on board.
As spring showed its colors, I wanted to freshen my own colors. I had become lazy in the winter months about dressing well and wearing make-up, and so my goal for May was to look my best every day. It was perfect timing since I had many appearance-sensitive events that month, including a weekend with my future in-laws. I dreaded they would ask me, “Do you ever change your clothes?” Empirical research showed that the real problem was not laziness, but a lack of glucose when I woke up in the morning. Self-control makes the frontal cortex of the brain work hard, and the brain consumes 25% of the body’s circulating glucose. So when your glucose is low, it’s much harder to exercise willpower. Basically, I would skip breakfast and then have no energy to spend 15 extra minutes on looking good. The fix was easy: I grabbed a soy yogurt from the fridge right after I woke up. Problem solved.
Now that I looked good again, it was time to dance. My sister’s wedding was at the end of June, and she requested I perform three choreographed dances in front of 400 people. I feel awkward even dancing in front of the mirror. So my June resolution was to focus on her wedding. Even though I complained daily about rehearsing for two hours every day, this was actually the most satisfying goal of the year. Nothing compares to the joy of making someone you love happy. She was so thrilled with my efforts that she cried (if I hadn’t made the resolution, then she might have been in tears about the terrible dancing). As this New York Times article on happiness states, “Few things are as liberating as giving away to others that which we hold dear.” Time was my scarcest resource, and I gave it to my sister.
The next four months continued in the same vein. I improved my productivity at work in July (success), read five books in August (success), tried to be spend more time with my fiancé in September (failure), and aimed to cook 10 times in October (missed by two).
In November, my resolution was to skip coffee. It was similar to the February goal of no chocolate—but I no longer needed a referee or a financial penalty. After nine months of practice, I had developed the willpower to break an addiction. Yes, it was challenging to step off a red-eye flight and go straight to the office. But I did it. Resisting the temptation was easier after I hid the coffee in my apartment as well as the loyalty card to my favorite café. Walter Mischel, designer of the renowned Marshmallow Test, found that children who successfully refrained from eating the marshmallow did so by distracting themselves or covering their eyes. Those who kept looking at the marshmallow succumbed to the temptation. Removing coffee from my immediate vicinity paved the road to success.
It is obvious that my behavior has changed since the experiment began in February. I now work out twice a week and have no difficulty turning down dessert. After a long work week, I make the time to write and volunteer in the evenings and weekends. And the icing on the non-cake is that it is no longer a struggle. I am not fighting myself anymore since my thoughts and actions are aligned with each other.
The monthly resolutions were supposed to stop at the end of 2014, but I gained so much from them that I will continue in 2015. Baumeister is correct that “Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.” The challenges will evolve as my personal goals change, and the journey to greater self-control will continue.