Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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At this time of year there's a lot in the papers related to our agenda because this is the time for New Year Resolutions. I particularly enjoyed The Guardian Weekend supplement on Saturday which proclaimed in red writing on a bold yellow cover: This magazine will change your life. In fact the lead item by Oliver Burkeman was far from typical of the self-help genre. His first piece of advice was to 'abandon your new year resolutions today'. The reasoning for this is simple: will power is 'a unitary, depletable resource'. What he means by this is that the more resolutions you have the less likely you are to make any sustainable changes.
This is certainly the message that comes loud and clear from research which shows that using will power is similar to exercising a muscle – it uses energy and can make us feel exhausted. Indeed various research projects have shown that even simple acts of self-control utilise glucose.
The social psychologist Roy Baumeister and others conducted an interesting research project on will-power in the late 1990s. They invited students to attend a lab and instructed them not to eat for three hours before the experiment. Group 1 were put in a waiting room with a large plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and some radishes. They were asked not to eat any cookies but invited to eat as many radishes as they wanted. Another group were able to eat the cookies and another group were not offered any food at all. Participants were then asked to work on an unsolvable problem. What the researchers found was that those who had resisted the cookies quit much earlier than the students in the other conditions. Quite simply resisting eating the delicious smelling cookies when they were hungry exhausted them and so they had less energy available for the test.
It is because will power requires energy and is depleted easily that we can find it difficult to resist temptation when we are particularly stressed or are facing challening decisions. It is also the reason why we are best not to attempt a number of big changes, requiring will-power, at the same time. One big change is likely to be taxing enough.
Because will power is inevitably limited it is best to find other ways to support behaviour change. For example, if you want to eat less and lose weight go to the shops when you have eaten (and have maximum mental strength) and resist buying high calorie food. If you don't have chocolate, crisps etc in the house then you don't have to resist eating them. If you want to take more exercise then arrange in advance to do things with friends as the commitment to others is likely to stiffen your resolve or at least won't simply depend on your will power.
My resolution is to write more blogs but I might be writing them standing up as I'm also resolving to spend less time sitting at my desk. I've been concerned about how sedentary I am for a while given that there's now a lot studies on how damaging sitting is to our health. This is another on Oliver Burkeman's list- worth having a look if you haven't read it already.