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Revellers write the number 2013 with sparklers during the Hogmanay (New Year) street-party celebrations in Edinburgh, Scotland. (DAVID MOIR/REUTERS)
Revellers write the number 2013 with sparklers during the Hogmanay (New Year) street-party celebrations in Edinburgh, Scotland. (DAVID MOIR/REUTERS)

Willpower

Stop me before I resolve again! Add to ...

Are you too short for your weight? I know how you feel. Are you bothered by that squishy roll of flesh above your jeans? Me too. Are you depressed by your lack of self-control? Of course you are! It’s time to get a grip on those love handles once and for all. We’re going to hit the gym three times a week and trade in our chocolate-coated biscotti for rye husks.

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And we will succeed. Maybe even until the end of January.

’Tis the season of self-reproach and fresh resolve. The trouble is that New Year’s resolutions don’t work. I know this because I’ve been breaking them for 50 years. Even so, I can’t stop myself. Last week, I woke up in the middle of the night vowing that I would join the Y and take up swimming for an hour every day. The next morning, I went on the Internet and found out how much it would cost to join the Y and what the swimming schedule was. In my mind, I was already in the pool with my swim cap and goggles, vigorously stroking away and getting lean and fit and vital. How fabulous! I conveniently forgot that I have joined the Y three times before, and that my cost per lap swum is higher than I care to calculate.

Why are our good resolutions so hard to sustain? Why do we so often set out to do what’s good for us, and wind up noshing on Timbits? The reason is ego depletion. This phrase was coined by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, who argues that willpower – the active self – is a limited resource. The more you exercise your self-control on one task, the less you have for the next. This is a big subject among experimental psychologists, who have subjected hundreds of university students to tests involving chocolate-chip cookies and radishes. Researchers have found that willpower is like a mental muscle. It gets fatigued. There’s only so much willpower you can muster before you get all tired out.

It turns out that you use the same muscle of self-control for all kinds of unrelated tasks – meeting deadlines, battling traffic, avoiding French fries, being nice to your in-laws, spending an extra five minutes on the treadmill. By the end of a demanding day, your willpower has been depleted, which is why you go home and kick the cat, or eat half a pint of Häagen-Dazs, or yell at your husband to pick up his stupid flaming socks. (You may think you’re being helpful, but you’re not. I once made the mistake of asking my husband to make a New Year’s resolution for me. “Stop nagging me to pick up my socks,” he said. )

This doesn’t mean you can’t improve yourself. You can. But it’s hard. Ego depletion explains why I was able to exert a massive effort to stop smoking, then promptly gained the 20 extra pounds that have stuck to me to this day. Every so often, I manage to lose a pound or two, but they always come right back. By now I am grateful just to hold the line. Moderation is good, but diets are evil. What I really need to do is start swimming!

Swimming is just part of my extensive self-improvement program, which includes goals both large and small. These include: Clear out basement, learn to draw, floss regularly, stop wasting time on the Internet. Visit my mother-in-law more often. Stop nagging husband. Try out new recipes, finish Moby Dick, spend more time with friends, keep my desk neater, be more diligent about answering e-mail, update will, keep car clean, cut out booze except on weekends (hah!), volunteer with Food Bank, achieve moral perfection.

You see the problem here. As Prof. Baumeister points out in his book on willpower (called Willpower, co-authored with John Tierney), the problem isn’t my lack of goals. The problem is that I have too many of them. Because I have only one supply of willpower, there’s not enough to go around. All my different resolutions compete with one another. Each time I try to achieve one, the likelihood goes down that I’ll achieve any of the others. The only thing I can be sure of is that, by about the middle of February, I’ll be brooding on what a miserable failure I am.

Or, as Oprah says, “How did I let this happen again?”

There is some good news, though. If willpower is like a muscle, it can be trained. According to the professor, creating better habits in some areas can help you improve in others. Keeping your bed made and your desk tidy not only makes you happier, but also provides useful practice in self-regulation. Order and discipline in little things can make it easier to accomplish big things.

It is also helpful to arrange your life to avoid problem situations. For example, if you want to avoid eating ice cream, never have it in the fridge. Always remember that cheating on your spouse will only end in tears. Also, there is never any reason to eat French fries, unless they are the kind of skinny, crisp, fresh-cut frites that come with homemade mayonnaise, in which case you should have as many as you want. It’s amazing how much easier you can make your life with a few simple rules like these. As for exercise, it’s like sex. It’s generally more fun when you do it with somebody else.

Personally, I think weight loss is highly overrated. I’d rather spend my limited supplies of willpower in more productive ways. If all the efforts we waste trying to lose weight were unleashed on improving the world instead, we’d probably have global peace by now. Besides, now that high-waisted jeans are coming back, you can largely avoid that ugly jelly-roll look. Muffin-tops of the world, unite! We have far, far better things to do.

 

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