Dec 31, 2017 - 5 minutes read time
Here is a radical approach to keep your new year’s resolution. Preserve willpower in a distracted world.
Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, between the maple-syrup-glazed roast turkey and the lemon drop champagne punch, it is customary—while slouching toward a food coma—to set ourselves a target, a New Year’s resolution, as part of the yearly ritual. “What good shall I do this day?” Benjamin Franklin asked himself every morning. “How can I stay fit and healthy?” I ask myself every year.
To stay fit and healthy is to join a gym and to go there every other day, at least in theory. In reality, only 33 percent of gym members regularly go to the gym; 67 percent of memberships go unused, meaning the majority recognized the need for exercise but found no time for it, or it never reached the top of their priority list. And so the economics of the gym industry are most similar to those of the credit card industry: of a huge pool of credit card holders, only a small group pay off their bills every month as they’re supposed to. The typical users—65 percent of all—are what bankers call “revolvers,” holders who don’t pay their bills in full. The debt revolves, and with an average interest rate of about 15 percent, a $100 debt rolls into a $200 debt in just five years’ time.
I looked up how much my savings account earned in 2017. This year, Bank of America is giving 0.01 percent interest. When a bank is in the lending business, where the cost of taking money from savers is close to zero, and it can charge borrowers 15 percent or more, that explains the sign-up bonuses, outsize cash-back campaigns, lavish rewards programs, airline mileages, hotel points, free warranty extensions, complimentary car rental insurance, trip-cancellation options, access to airport lounges and ticket presales for concerts, musicals, football matches, and tennis tournaments. When most gym members dutifully pay up their monthly membership but actually don’t visit the facilities, that explains the free towel service, sauna and steam rooms, hair dryers, creamy soaps, lotions, conditioners, complimentary guest passes, nutritional counseling, fitness assessments, and free trials on personal trainers. Hence, a gym’s survival depends on its ability to attract a peculiar kind of customer: people who intend to work out, but don’t.
The urge toward self-betterment through sheer willpower naturally reaches its fever pitch by New Year’s Eve, and the most celebrated embodiment of this thinking is none other than Oprah Winfrey. The idea that positive thinking can lead not only to positive feeling—happiness, pleasure, and well-being—but to actual wealth, love, and success, is as seductive as the Christmas giveaways in which Oprah showers her audiences with diamond watches and HDTVs and Caribbean cruises. Ms. Winfrey’s “Go, girl. Go for it” almost rings with a religious tone, a self-reliant conservatism, a church-free spirituality. “If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it,” she is said to have taped to her mirror. As she wipes out someone’s debts (and tears) on the air or buys her viewers a SUV or a house, she charges her fellow citizens to overcome any victimhood and to take personal responsibility by asking ourselves, “‘If Oprah Winfrey can make it, what does it say about me?’ They no longer have any excuse.”
I no longer have any excuse. So why can’t I bring myself to go to the gym? The problem with personal willpower is that it can’t be summoned at will. Willpower is like a finite natural resource, allotted every day, of which we may squander, preserve, or put to good use. To possess willpower, or self-control, is to “resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals, and there are good reasons to do so,” explains the American Psychological Association. From resisting temptation to exerting persistence to maintaining “grit” when facing adversity, willpower underscores and explains successes from early childhood throughout adult life. In the famous marshmallow test, preschoolers were given a marshmallow and presented with a choice: eat the single marshmallow immediately, or wait 20 minutes and receive a second one. Preschoolers who had shown the grit to resist the instant gratification—not to immediately gobble the first—achieved higher SAT scores and lower BMI (body mass index) some 30 years later. That same ability to delay gratification is also correlated with other positive outcomes, including higher self-esteem, lower substance abuse rates, greater financial security, and improved physical and mental health.
But things get more complicated when we consider willpower as similar to muscle power, which can grow fatigued but can also be strengthened by deliberate training. (Surely only Michael Phelps can swim like Michael Phelps, but we can all train to swim competently.) In another fascinating study—this time, involving cookies and radishes—77 undergraduates were asked to skip lunch. They were then shown two bowls of food: one was filled with warm, freshly baked cookies, and the other, cold radishes. The researcher instructed half of the participants to eat the cookies and ignore the radishes; the other half was told to ignore the cookies and concentrate on eating the stale radishes. After five minutes, the two groups attempted to solve a puzzle that appeared easy but was actually impossible to solve. The cookie eaters, their faces relaxed, some humming songs, attempted the puzzle repeatedly. They spent an average of nineteen minutes before giving up. The radish eaters, on the other side, looked agitated, showed palpable frustration, shifted restlessly in their seats, and complained about the setup of the experiment. They all quit after just eight minutes—that’s 60 percent less patience than the cookie eaters. One hurled insults at the researcher. The radish munchers, who had used their willpower to resist the sweet cookies, were so exhausted that they no longer had the stamina to focus on the impossible puzzle.
Willpower can be depleted like any other resource. Once exhausted, we easily lose patience and succumb to all kinds of temptations. After a long day at work closing the accounting books and filing endless complicated expense reports, most of us end up collapsing in front of the TV with a tub of ice cream. Going to the gym is for tomorrow. Let’s relax tonight. Now I understand why the gym rush hour peaked before the morning traffic hour. A significant portion of those who actually use their gym memberships go first thing in the morning, when they still have adequate willpower. “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning,” Mark Twain would say.
Originally published on Forbes
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