How to gain power over your willpower

Three months into the new year, how successful have you been at keeping your New Year’s resolutions? Are you one of the lucky few who managed to stick to your goals for 2016?

If you broke your resolutions, you are not alone. According to a 2015 Ipsos Reid poll, 73% of Canadians who made New Year’s resolutions will break them. The poll also found that more than half of all respondents think it’s important to set goals at the start of the year, and 88% admitted to be always looking for ways to improve their overall well-being.

But all is not lost. It turns out that there are ways to gain power over your willpower. The first step to getting back on track is understanding why things went wrong. 

Dr. Richard Koestner, Researcher and Professor in the McGill Department of Psychology, and Director of the McGill Human Motivation Lab, offers some insight, “It has long been argued that you should select specific, measureable goals. But my own research makes the case that even if you follow all the guidelines, you are still likely to fail. The truth is, we are creatures of habit and it is extremely difficult to muster the sustained energy required to alter your behaviour for any period of time.”

If you are ready to overcome the limitations of your willpower, here are some important reminders.

  • Be honest
    Why have you chosen this particular goal? Many of the resolutions we make are actually things we feel others want us to do. But there is considerable evidence indicating that when your resolutions are genuinely connected with your interests and values, they will be easier to keep. This is especially true for those that require patience – for example, losing weight. It will be far easier to shed those pounds if that goal is personally meaningful to you.
  • Plan, plan, plan!
    It is crucial to plan when, where and how you will achieve this goal. Ideally, this plan should make attainment of the goal almost automatic (and thus bypass the need to exert more willpower). For example, if you work in business, schedule your exercise sessions three times a week and respect those appointments like you would any other.
  • Get support from others
    But not just anyone. Dr. Koestner’s most recent research suggests that having empathic support will be most helpful in the long run. So rely more on those friends and family members who listen and empathise, and who show interest in your feelings and ideas as you go through this process.
  • Failure is part of the process
    Keep in mind that most people require six or seven attempts before they succeed at something. The important thing is to learn something valuable from each failure and apply that lesson as you move forward.
  • There is more to life than achieving goals
    Life is also about enjoying relationships and having experiences. “There is a downside to evaluating one's life too much in terms of goals,” notes Dr. Koestner. “Many of the most meaningful experiences you have result spontaneously and without any goal-setting. Making progress on your goals is one way to improve your well-being, but there are many other equally or more important factors in making a good life. For example, social relationships are probably the most important, but we don't tend to make resolutions about those.”

One last piece of advice: schedule a reboot on July 1.

Since the dark, cold months of winter are hardly conducive to motivation, Dr. Koestner suggests resetting or recalibrating your resolutions halfway through the year, when sunny weather is bound to give you more energy.

At the McGill Human Motivation Lab, Dr. Richard Koestner conducts research on goal-setting, self-regulation and internalization processes. His most recent work has focused on the maladaptive consequences of regulation based on extrinsic rewards or controlling introjects.


McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE)

Desautels Faculty of Management

Follow the Bloomberg Manulife Prize on