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The Power of Willpower

As we all embark upon the new year, many of us are thinking about how to make it a little better than last year. In fact, 45% of us have made New Year’s resolutions. Anyone who has ever set a New Year's resolution knows how hard it is to stay the course. Whether your goal is to lose weight, pay off debt, or get organized, what starts out as enthusiastic motivation quickly dissolves into apathy within a few weeks. 


According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, of the 45% of people that make a new year’s resolution, 25% will give up after the first week. By January 20, 80% will have quit.  In fact, statistics show that only 8% of the people who set New Year's resolutions actually keep them until summer and beyond into a lifestyle change.


Whether your goal is to eat healthier, exercise more, or spend less, those in the 8% have tapped into something that fuels their success: willpower. Having strong willpower is not something we’re born with. But when can train and develop it in such a way that brings us long-lasting success. 

We’ve been studying willpower for a long time. In a well-known 1960s psychology experiment called the “marshmallow experiment,” Stanford professor Walter Mischel offered four-year-olds the choice between one marshmallow or two — they could receive one instantly, or two if they agreed to wait 15 minutes. In over 600 children who took part in the experiment, a minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, only one third waited long enough to get the second marshmallow

Mischel and fellow researchers then tracked the performance of these children into adulthood, finding that the kids who had the willpower to resist the instant gratification in general were happier, had better health, achieved greater academic successes, and lower rates of divorce. Amazingly, the differences in their levels of willpower stuck with them for over 40 years.

Since Mischel’s landmark study, scientists have continued to explore the brain activity of willpower and their findings are fascinating. Willpower lives in the prefrontal cortex – remember this is the region right behind the forehead that handles all the higher order thinking processes such as planning, making choices, and solving problems. In recent studies, MRIs show that when people are presented with tempting stimuli, those with higher self-control have greater activity in the prefrontal cortex, and when the prefrontal cortex is engaged, you’re doing your best thinking.

Here is another interesting finding: willpower is a depletable resource.  We tend to have more of it in the morning when we’re well-rested and the brain is fueled with glucose.  As the day wears on and glucose levels decrease, so does our willpower. Consciously identifying your goals in the morning and doing one thing that puts you a step closer to meeting them is one simple strategy to help you achieve greater success.

Just like your muscles have to be trained in order to grow stronger, so does your willpower. Each day is a new opportunity to strengthen your brain.  

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