The new year presents many challenges for those making resolutions because self-control is so difficult. Many Americans resolve to lose weight, stop drinking alcohol, or start exercising. Each year we try our best to set our desired behaviors into action until we are faced with two competing motives. For example, one objective may be to improve our health while the other may be to indulge foods we know to be fattening; foods our cardiologists have told us to avoid.
It is important to set realistic goals when making a New Year's resolution. We should make just one resolution at a time. Research shows that if we set more than one goal, we always fail at the second. If our resolutions have an immediate reward, we tend to be successful. However, the more distant the reward, the less likely we are to achieve the reward. We tend to devalue goals that are in the future because they take more time and emotional energy to achieve. For example, it takes several months or sometimes years to lose a significant amount of weight. The reward for losing large amounts of weight is so far in the distance that we tend to abolish that goal and instead eat the apple pie we just bought from Costco.
The neurotransmitter, dopamine, is associated with rewards and when dopamine neurons fire they cause us to have greater anticipation for a reward and this triggers urges to indulge. It is difficult to delay our impulsive drive for instant gratification, especially when it is so tempting and available. Just seeing food, or smelling food, especially foods to which we have strong emotional associations, causes us to want that food. People who do control their behaviors have developed schemes to avoid exposure and therefore temptation.
Sometimes we excuse the departure from our resolutions while at the same time engaging in the very thing we were resolved to avoid. We often seduce ourselves into justifying our indulging behaviors. We may tell ourselves, "Oh, just a little bit of apple pie won't hurt. It isn't going to show." Such self-defeating behaviors diminish our drive to succeed. "I'll just fail again, so what's the use of trying." Even though we may believe we can't control our behavior, it isn't really true. We have choices. We can abstain and achieve our goals, or we can give in and have a slice of that apple pie. Once we reject our resolutions it is hard to recommit.
Failing to accomplish our resolutions damages our self-esteem and may cause us to engage in even more reward-seeing behavior. If rewarding ourselves with food is the most frequent coping behavior we engage in, then we are more likely to eat, especially during times of stress.
Using the following techniques can help control impulsive behaviors.
1. Remove yourself from environments that are destructive to your will power.
2. Remember you can control your own behavior because you have choices.
3. Realistically assess your ability to succeed.
4. Change self-critical thoughts into optimistic, positive thoughts such as "I can vs. I'll try."
5. Identify good behavior. For example, putting on your tennis shoes and running around the block is a reward, not a punishment. Good behavior promotes good behavior and improves your self-esteem.
6. Only change one behavior at a time. Research shows that having more than one goal is to defeat all other goals.
7. It takes emotional energy to change behaviors, so take care of yourself and get rid of the barriers that have diminished your success in the past.
8. Stop automatic, self-defeating thoughts.