Making resolutions and setting goals are both strategies for change. Deciding which strategy is best depends on understanding willpower and the type of change you want to make or action you want to take. Research has demonstrated that willpower is a rather limited resource, but like a muscle it can be strengthened. Both resolutions and goals help us exercise our willpower, but there is a key difference. While most resolutions such as to no longer smoke are indefinite, goals such as to lose 10 lbs. are time-bound. This difference becomes important as you learn to exercise and strengthen your resolve. Why?
A goal will only tax your willpower as long as you continue to pursue the goal. For example, once you have lost 10 lbs. you are free to reallocate the willpower required to achieve your goal to a new endeavor, but you must be careful. Having finished one goal, if you now reallocate all of the willpower used to achieve your goal and turn it towards a new goal, you risk gaining back the weight. To reduce this risk requires a new resolution, the indefinite maintaining of your new weight. This too requires willpower, which in theory now subtracts from your ability to apply an equal amount of willpower towards any newly established goal. What can you do?
One answer is being careful to not take on too much at one time as you grow your willpower in the pursuit of taking on more and increasingly complex challenges. If because it is a New Year you make as many new resolutions as you can, limited only by the power of your imagination, the increasing demands on one's will may go unnoticed until you get on the scale. It is only when you see much of the weight has been regained that you realize you unknowingly traded one resolution for another.
Therefore, before making any new resolution or goal you need to make sure and revisit your current commitments. Ideally you want to strengthen your resolve, rather than trading resolutions back and forth. If you think in terms of a body builder, strengthening your resolve is best accomplished by taking incremental steps, adding small amounts of weight or increasing demands on your will a little at a time. Add but a single resolution or two and maybe set a slightly higher goal. This will help you progress, over time strengthening your willpower while maintaining the gains you have already achieved.
Article by Richard Feenstra, Ph.D.
To learn more about willpower and procrastination read "The Thief of Time", edited by Chrisoula Andreou & Mark D. White.
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making.
Bobby Hoffman is the author of "Hack Your Motivation" and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Central Florida.