Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Sane Advice on Resolutions: Be Specific, Get Real, and Exercise

It is the time of year when we aspire to change just about everything in our lives.

If you are charting a course for the next year, consider listening to "WillPower Science," today's episode of The People's Pharmacy,  The Graedons' guest is Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University and author of The Willpower Instinct:  How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

McGonigal points out that a New Year's Resolution is largely emotion regulation- we do it because it really feels good to conceive of ourselves as some ideal vastly different from our current predicament.  There is nothing wrong with dreaming big (and in fact it is necessary), but not surprisingly that ideal often is immediately and painfully dashed on the rocks of reality and your limitations.  Accordingly, when you fail to reach that pie in the sky ("I will exercise for an hour every day,"  "I will not snack at all""I will never watch 'The Real Housewives'"), your self-control disappears completely and you experience what psychologists call the "What-the-Hell Effect."  And you are worse off than when you started.

In order to make a resolution stick, McGonigal suggests specific actions, and coming to the recognition that you will encounter setbacks and improve gradually.  On the first point, ask yourself what specific action you can take, preferably right now or today, that is consistent with your goal?  If your goal is to write, can you commit to writing for even five minutes today?   If you intend to exercise, consider 10 minutes as opposed to the hour-long run that you may have been capable of when you were an undergraduate but if attempted now will merely depress you and keep you from being able to walk tomorrow.

Attorneys particularly should read Cordell Parvin's "Making 2012 Your Best Year Ever" (summarized here) to get a very specific blueprint for setting goals and immediately undertaking specific actions to move toward them.  Consider also the lessons of What Successful People Do Differently and identify those obstacles standing in the way of your goals so that you can anticipate them and practically navigate them.   

Moving to the second theme of limitations and gradual improvement, McGonigal emphasizes that setbacks will occur because, as discussed previously here, willpower is a muscle that gets tired. Accordingly, understanding that getting better, even in very small increments, is realistic and rewarding will help you create positive feedback loops, avoid harmful stress, and ward off the "What the Hell Effect".

And finally, if you are looking for one resolution to improve your willpower, self-control, and overall well-being, consider exercise.  McGonigal describes the "willpower miracle," and studies showing that physical exercise reduces cravings, relieves stress, acts as a powerful anti-depressant, enhances the biology of self-control in the brain, and "makes your brain bigger and faster."  In other words, exercise is the resolution-enabler.