• Audrey Sanchez

When it Comes to Resolutions, Forget Willpower

For a long time, New Year’s Resolutions have been pitched as independent endeavors. They’re sold as this sort of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and change your life scenario.

And it’s a romantic idea, isn’t it? Somehow, miraculously on January 1st, every single person will suddenly have the skills, knowledge, and mindsets necessary to be their best selves. Just because they want it bad enough.

Romantic, yes. Realistic, no.


It’s not that a few folks won’t have some sustained success with their resolutions in the new year — but compared to the number of people who make resolutions — the number of successes will be nominal.


And the reason why is pretty simple.


Why you ask? Why won’t I suddenly only crave kale and quinoa? Why won’t I be motivated to rearrange my entire life to get to the gym 20 minutes away 6 mornings a week? Why won’t I be able to avoid the pint of ice cream in my freezer after a stressful day at work?


Because most resolutions are predicated on willpower or some overnight behavior change “hack” — and as disappointing as this may be — those hacks are not the best way to initiate sustained change. Although they do make super-awesome listicles.


If you’ve tried to get sober or eat healthier in the past, you know the best chance you have at success is to remove all alcohol/drugs/junk food/etc… from your house. It’s nearly impossible to get sober with a bottle of wine sitting a few feet away or choose an apple over potato chips when you’re hungry.


More and more, we’re understanding the ways in which environment plays a role in behavior change. We’re also realizing that willpower has less and less to do with success than we used to believe.


The person who changes their diet? Doesn’t usually do so with a fridge full of junk. They change their food environment at home. They throw out temptations and stock their cupboards with healthy food.


The person who exercises more? Likely does so by making exercising easier at home vs. joining a gym and then quitting a few weeks later.

When resistance to healthier habits is lowered, and the environment makes it easier to make healthier choices, people are more likely to choose healthier options than if their decision was contingent on willpower alone.

Knowing this, it begs the question: why aren’t we doing more to make the environments in which we live, work, learn, and heal healthier?

Instead of individually setting out to change our own behaviors based on a flawed understanding of behavior change and willpower, why haven’t we yet banded together to demand healthier offices, schools, and hospitals for ourselves and our families?


Instead of beating ourselves up for struggling to follow through on our resolutions, why aren’t we concerned with why those resolutions are so difficult to keep? Instead of blaming ourselves for not being “strong enough to resist” the abundance of unhealthy food surrounding us, we should be questioning why unhealthy food is the only thing surrounding us!


Why aren’t we asking the corporations and institutions serving our families to put our health first and make healthy living easier?


We want to eat healthier at work, but the only options around are vending machines, drive-throughs, or greasy office cafeteria food? Recipe for feeling terrible.


We want to “tackle childhood obesity,” but we expect our children to turn down chicken nuggets and opt for the salad bar in the lunch room? Not happening.


We want triple-bypass patients to go home and eat vegetables at every meal, but serve them sausage, hash-browns, and eggs in the hospital? Setting people up for failure.


With our New Year’s Resolutions looming just on the horizon, now is the perfect time for us to come together and demand better from the places that serve us and our families. We can use our individual energies to change very little about our own lives, OR we can harness our current optimism to change the environments that actually shape our behavior.


In 2019, our collective resolution should be to make healthy meals the default option in our offices, schools, and hospitals — not a reward for the few with the strongest willpower.

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