New Year’s Day is still a few days away, but yesterday my younger son asked me what I was going to resolve for the new year. I told him I need to get better organized – same as last year but after the first week or two I gave up. And I need to exercise more. He said those would be good for him also, plus he wants to make some new friends.
Then I told him that to be successful this year, we need to plan. Just resolving to do things differently rarely accomplishes much. I need to decide what specifically I’m going to do, and when. Last year I started making a weekly to-do list, but the one items on the list I never did was “update the to-do list for the following week.”
I have all kinds of excuses. For instance, I made the list on my computer, so I can easily update it and print it out. But I share the computer with my sons, so I can’t always sit down to work on it when I want to. (I could make them get off, of course, but if it’s not a necessity that I do it right then, I prefer to let them finish what they’re doing – just as I expect them to do for me.) Plus the printer attached to that computer broke, so printing the list requires sending it to another computer, with a working printer (inkjet printers generally aren’t worth repairing).
Then there’s the dog. Part of getting organized is filing the paperwork that constantly accumulates – paid and unpaid bills, statements from the insurance company, pay stubs, report cards, etc. And to easily get at the file drawer in my filing cabinet, I need to sit on the floor in front of it. Well, you can imagine what that suggests to a lab full of energy and enthusiasm.
But mostly I don’t succeed with these resolutions because they are work. I work at the office all day, I do shopping and cooking and cleaning (though not much more than the bare necessities of clean clothes and clean dishes), and I just do not welcome the thought of more work. Even if I know I’ll appreciate the results. Even if I don’t like thinking of myself as lazy and disorganized.
An article in the Wall Street Journal has some interesting insights about willpower. Personally I don’t find it particularly surprising that exercising willpower takes energy. Even if the activity you are willing yourself to do isn’t strenuous, the effort to focus on something you’d just as soon rather not do or think about burns calories. Because of my job, which requires lots of thinking but little physical activity, and my difficulties with low blood sugar, I’ve long realized that intense focus on just about anything takes a lot of energy.
I’m sure some people will see this article as an attempt to shirk personal responsibility, blaming behavior on biology instead of poor character. And no doubt some people will use it that way as an excuse, instead of an assist to succeed where they have failed before. But the point of the article is not that failure to keep resolutions is inevitable, but rather that we set ourselves up for failure by taking on too much self-improvement at one time.
The article compares the prefrontal cortex of the brain – which handles willpower as well as short-term memory and solving abstract problems – to a muscle such as the bicep. If I go to the gym tonight and try to lift 60 pounds, I will probably succeed – a few times. But if I keep going, I’ll quickly reach the point that I can barely lift even 30 pounds.
Instead, I need to start at a weight that’s just a bit of a challenge, and do at least a dozen reps. Then come back in a couple days and do it again. And again next week. And in a few weeks, I’ll add another five pounds. If I keep it up long enough, I will get to 60 pounds and still be able to keep going. (Of course, getting myself to the gym to begin with is the first thing to work on.)
It’s basically the same with willpower, this article suggests. Work on changing one small area for a couple weeks, and your willpower improves in other areas. And since using willpower takes energy, depriving yourself of food (i.e. an overly restricted diet) is counterproductive, even if the goal is to lose weight.
So how about some New-Month resolutions? I tried this one year, and at least for a while it worked. (Unfortunately, since getting organized wasn’t one I started with, the assignment of goals to months didn’t happen very consistently.) That way the willpower muscle doesn’t get overloaded, and the success of one month contributes to success the next month.
So this year I start with getting organized. Not the desk or the filing cabinet, to start with at least. Just a weekly to-do list – with “update this list” as the one task that absolutely must get done each week. Once that habit is established, I can assign another goal. And I’m not even going to decide yet what that will be.